Reading the Bible from the margins

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Written by Winnie Fung (Academic Head of Lumina College, Board Member of CEDAR Fund). A shorter version of this article is available from CEDAR Fund: English / 中文

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…”

Deuteronomy 5:12-14

When you read this passage, what jumps out?

Many of us may answer: the seventh day is meant for rest.

However, for the impoverished, it may be the opposite. Justo Gonzalez, in his book Santa Biblia: the Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, shares about a pastor who, when preaching this passage, asked his poor, urban congregation: How many of you were able to work six days last week? A couple hands went up. Four days? A few more. Two days? A lot more. How many of you wanted to work six days but couldn’t find work? Almost all hands shot up.

For this group of brothers and sisters, it is verse 13, not 14, that captures their attention: “Six days you shall labor.” For them, it is not just a command but also a promise from God. “Six days you shall labor” is no less part of the order that God desires for humankind than resting on the seventh day.

Have we been interpreting this passage wrongly by focusing on rest? Not at all. Rest is much needed in our busy society. But this example illustrates how each of us comes to Scripture with blind spots. While the Bible is written for both the poor and nonpoor, in reality, a lot of biblical interpretation are done by the nonpoor.

We focus on the command to rest, often to the exclusion of the command to work, because we read the Bible from the perspective of one who does not need to worry about work. If instead we read “from the margins,” from the perspective of the poor, we get a fuller picture of God’s intention for the work-rest rhythm for humankind. We will be rightly indignant not only at practices that treat human beings as non-stop machines, but also at economic and societal structures that perpetuate unemployment and underemployment for certain groups in society.

Hence the question is not simply, “What does the Bible say about the poor?” but “What does the Bible say when read from the perspective of the poor?” Once we ask this question, we will encounter a much richer, deeper, and broader picture of who God is and what His love, mercy, and justice mean.

Consider the example of Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, where everyone, regardless of whether they were hired early in the morning or late in the afternoon, got paid the same. Those who worked longer hours found the arrangement unfair, even unjust.

A typical sermon may argue that God’s grace is above justice. The landowner demonstrated mercy by paying the same wage to later hires because those workers “needed” the money for basic living, not because they earned it or “deserved” it. But this interpretation of need versus deserve is very much a modern, middle-class one.

In some poor Hispanic churches, Gonzalez points out, people are not puzzled by the landowner’s act at all. They see it not only as an act of mercy, but of profound justice - the landowner was paying the workers what they “justly need” and “justly deserve.” They understand the workers who went early yet spent the day “doing nothing” (v6). It was not that they were lazy, but because “no one has hired [them]” (v7). In fact, they have even more respect for the later hires who demonstrated more hope and perseverance, standing there waiting to be hired, than those offered a job right away.

Common justice in our society deems it unfair to pay those later hires for work they did not do. “Justice” is limited to a system that compensates people like us for full-time work. Such “justice” absolves us from any responsibility to the less fortunate who cannot find enough work. By contrast, people in the poor Hispanic churches see in Jesus’s teaching a grace that understands justice at a much broader and deeper level.

Reading Scripture from the margins allows us a richer and more multifaceted encounter of God’s love, mercy, and justice. Without the perspectives of the poor, we miss precious things from the Bible. It is not learning about the poor or learning about how to help them. The poor themselves have much to offer us. May we receive.