By Henri Persoz
Translaton Louise Thunin
This word, of Greek origin, doesn’t mean much to our contemporaries. It’s reserved for theologians. It comes from eschato, which means, the last, referring to the end of the world, to the end, to that which is the most distant from us, the most remote. It is often used in the New Testament, for example when Jesus recommends (in Luke 14 :10) to guests at a banquet to go sit in the last seats. The word used is eschaton And when he says that the first shall be last (Matt. 19 :30) it’s once again eschatoi, the farthest away from us.
In Jesus’s day, as today, classifying people in comparison to one another was a sort of obsession, even among the disciples. You have to be the first everywhere, in school, in a race, in your job, in the polls, in the esteem people have for you, in getting to the tomb, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus takes a stand against this classification disease : the first, may they be at the other end–as far away as possible, the last. For example, he tells the parable of the eleventh hour laborers. In this story, the workers are hired in the morning and work hard all day, whereas others, late arrivals, are only hired at the eleventh hour. When the time comes to pay them, the vineyard owner first calls those who arrived last (eschatoi) and gives them as much as he does the others. This is a reversal of values : wisdom teaches that Jesus stands for the opposite of what people seek. It’s not a question of being served first, but of serving the late arrivals, those that come perhaps from the end of the world.
The word eschato is used to speak of the last days, of the final judgment, especially in the gospel of John. Hence the word eschatology, which is, for theologians, the science of the last days, of the coming of the Son of Man.
In Jesus’ time, and in the face of the suffering of the people, occupied and subjugated for so many years, a number of Jews were expecting liberation from Heaven, a Messiah who would throw out the Romans, reestablish peace forever and obtain for Israel its rights and its freedom. We can already see this expectancy in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, for example in the Book of Daniel (12 :2), which says : And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
After the death of Jesus and with the Apostle Paul, an important branch of Christianity, called the Great Church, began to identify this hoped-for Messiah with Jesus himself, and, since he had died and was risen again, they began to expect his imminent return. The synoptic gospels in fact describe this great return of the Son of Man, the tribulations that are to accompany his coming, and the last judgment, which will signify entry into the Kingdom of Heaven for the just (Matt. 25, Mark 13, Luke 21).
Only the Messiah didn’t return, and the last days were long in coming. Even today, in fact, some Christians continue to wait, and the Apostles’ Creed, still recited in many churches, even specifies that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. As if there weren’t already enough living to judge and that it’s necessary to pass judgment on the dead as well !
For other Christians, this eschatological wait is understood as a utopia, the aspiration to a better world that will arise, thanks to the commitment of human beings, who have understood that God is not a magician and that nothing will happen without their participation. Jesus showed the way : first serve those who have arrived last instead of serving oneself first.
But also these last days should be the first. They should first of all bring about the Son of Man. Eschatology is for now, above all.
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