Let Scripture Speak for the Marginalized

October 1st, 2018
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

Preaching from the margins demands careful navigation of the language, space, and bodies within a biblical story. When biblical texts are used to marginalize the already minoritized, a hermeneutic of spacial and linguistic sensitivity is essential to bringing about any kind of liberation that might be present in God’s word.

Therefore, when we interpret the Bible, especially for the sake of preaching, it is not enough to approach it solely committed to hearing voices from the margins. It’s not enough because we hear what we want to hear and we don’t hear what we need to hear. All too often, the very approach that seeks to offer freedom is in danger of folding in on itself; it leads to exegeting a text on the basis of an outside hermeneutic alone instead of looking for aspects in the text that insist on advocating for the marginalized, for those perceived to be outside of God’s love and God’s realm. It is the preacher’s calling to bring a stance of faithfulness to the text, to let the text be heard on its own terms. Saving the text from itself will not result in the kind of deliverance for which we hope. However, careful attention to the specificities of scripture might reveal that scripture itself is about the act of freedom.

Practically, then, the preacher committed to preaching from the margins, to the marginalized, and for the sake of the minoritized, has to trust that the text will reveal where and how this might happen. Three exegetical strategies are critical for tending how marginalization is both assumed and challenged in scripture.

First, attention to the language of the text will intimate ways we are to listen for how the marginalized are lifted up. The details of a biblical story are essential for realizing and recognizing where and how people are in the margins, left in the margins, or placed in the margins. For example, the story of the widow of Nain in Luke 7 exacerbates the dire circumstances of her son’s death. She is a widow and this is her only son. The woman at the well in John 4 has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. In first-century Palestine, this would mean that either her husbands died or divorced her—divorce most likely because she was barren. And without an heir, she is resigned to be under the care of her dead husband’s brother (Deut 25). The language itself creates empathy for the marginalized. Careful reading means that you cannot pass over these details.

Second, notice how the spacial dimensions of a text communicate the ways we navigate and interpret passages for the sake of those in the margins. This means an awareness of how space is used and how space is described in a biblical story. Who is on the inside and who is left on the outside? Where are there walls, borders, and boundaries that suggest separation? Inclusion and exclusion?

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Third, look for how bodies are described, how bodies are placed in a scene, how bodies are located in proximity to others. To what extent is the good Samaritan first considered good? It’s not because he helps the man in the ditch but because he comes near him. He gets close to the helpless, hurt man in the ditch. He chooses to come close when the priest and the Levite give the man a wide berth. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, perhaps Jesus bends down to write in the sand not so we wonder endlessly about what Jesus scribes in the dirt but so the authorities are then forced to look at each other, to ask of each other, “Who indeed is willing to cast the first stone?”

In other words, the loudest voices of the marginalized in a biblical story might not be voices at all but spaces and places, bodies and details that suggest there is more going on in the story than is first heard or seen.

At stake in this kind of hermeneutic is the very incarnation itself. Since God committed God’s self to the entirety of the human experience, the preacher must pay attention to the spectrum of the human condition. By becoming human, God entered into a marginalized existence, a disempowered state. By becoming flesh, God knows what it means to feel rejection, to be on the outside.

God decided to be a minoritized God—a deity that rejected power, that chose solidarity with those disposed, discarded, and disregarded. A deity that became flesh so that all flesh is seen as having value, as worthy of love and belonging. In the end, preaching from the margins takes seriously an incarnational approach to the text. This approach realizes the fragility of life and acknowledges how quickly and easily we choose power over restrictions and influence over being sidelined.

Preaching from the margins, therefore, is not simply that which we are called to do but that which is mandated by scripture itself, the Word of God made flesh. It is up to the preacher to be willing to go to these spaces, to occupy these places, to embody this kind of incarnational compassion not only for the sake of hearing the voices from the margins but also because that’s indeed where we will find our God.

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