The Rev. William Flippin Jr.: Structural Marginality in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)

In the Gospel of Matthew there are instances where one sees structural marginalization for those who are considered "outsiders." In the other Gospels, Jesus is very much present in the community as an advocate of social change. For instance, in the eschatological marriage feast all persons- men, women, children and non-Israelites belonged to God's new household.

Structural marginality as found in Matthew can be defined as structural inequities in the social system, that is, some persons are in the center and some are on the periphery. Examples in the Gospel of Matthew includes forced laborers, day laborers, some slaves, tenant farmers, the poor, the destitute in need of alms, eunuchs, those who are ritually unclean, lepers, a woman with a hemorrhage, the women who follow Jesus, the diseased and infirm, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the deformed paralytics, demoniacs, epileptics, bandits and prostitutes. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) offers a paradigm for structurally marginal persons.

In this parable sheep and goats are mixed together. They look very similar yet the caretaker sometimes needed to separate them. Central in this parable is the Son of Man asking, referring to Jesus. At the end of time, Jesus will be the judge. He knows the way that people have behaved here on earth. Some people may not seem very important. But everyone should be willing to help such people, even in small ways. If you want to help the king himself, then one should help poor people those who are on the structural margins of society. Some people had acted in the right way. They did not realize that they were helping the king. The king affirms that "the least important people belong to me" and the condemn goats actions offend the king.

This parable concludes just as the shepherd divided his sheep from the goats, so the sheep is separated on the right hand of the king. What better parable to illustrate structural marginality not only on earth but in heaven. At death a separation between good and evil is shown also in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

This is the last parable in the Gospel of Matthew before the passion narratives which to me raises some questions of the writer's intentions. Has this writer changed its position in the obvious structural marginalization found in the initial chapter in portraying the role of women in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Urriah? This writer seems to have a greater openness of dismantling such structural realities of having sheep and goats mixed together which could be referring to Jews and Gentiles.

As an African American that knows historically the Jim Crow system of segregation affirmed by the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which made it the law of the land in separating us from having the opportunities of those who felt privileged to exercise such power. I wonder is this writer setting up in the forthcoming passion narratives in Christ breaking down the walls of separation allowing a new structural paradigm that the king judges not based on structural realities of position and power but based on one's actions toward the "least of these". Perhaps, the evangelical emphasis of mission found in the Great Commission affirms the need to save those who are the goats in the parable who are lost? Maybe the reference as with the culmination of all Scripture in Revelations chapter 20-22, is to assert that ultimately there will only be two kinds of people in the world. These will be distinguished on the basis of their response to the gospel which will be the basis of distinct outcomes. Just as our ancestors affirm in the Negro spirituals that "trouble won't last always" that true everlasting reality is not to be found in this life but in the life to come.

As a Lutheran (ELCA) that affirms the Confessional creeds that states the wicked together with the devil and his angels shall "ewiglich sterben" (perish eternally). Our response existentially remains in tackling structural marginality is to respond properly to Jesus (the king) by becoming advocates of change through faith in him. We must demonstrate Christ's lordship in our lives through acts of service-to all the needy not by works righteousness but to all who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We can do justice in this life because we are heirs to the promise of God's grace and can affirm "from thy wrath, and from everlasting damnation, good Lord deliver us."

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