The Rule of the Last
Have we been interpreting Scripture wrongly all this time?
by Aric Clark
Even when I am sitting alone in a cozy nook with a blanket and a cup of tea, reading is an inherently social act. Not only am I interacting with the thoughts of the author, but also a complex social web informs my reading. That book found its way into my possession through social interactions. Whether literature or nonfiction, it almost certainly belongs to a genre informed by a series of social conventions. Most importantly, my interpretation of the content will be heavily shaped by my experiences and social location. I am a straight, cisgendered, educated, white male. I bring all of that with me to the text.
If this is true of all reading, it is even truer of Scripture, which is frequently read in the communal settings of worship and study, thick with socially constructed rules of interpretation. We never read the Bible alone, and the people we read the Bible with are the most significant influence over how we understand and apply it in our lives.
No reading of Scripture occurs in a vacuum, and no interpretation of it is free from the particularities of time, place, and culture. By virtue of my life experience and social location certain aspects of the text will jump out to me, but might not seem so significant to you, and vice versa. The same passages of Scripture will be interpreted differently by people in different contexts.
The challenge is that not every context is equally useful for interpreting the Bible. The Exodus story looked very different to enslaved African Americans than it did to white slave-owners, but this was not merely a case of differing but equally valid perspectives. The slaves were better equipped than their slave-owners for reading the truth of the Word of God because it was written for slaves.
Augustine famously coined the Rule of Love for interpreting the Bible, when he said, “Whoever . . . thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation on them that does not tend to build up [the] twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” The logic of this rule is that the very purpose of Scripture is to testify to God’s love such that any reading of the text that leads away from love should be excluded from the outset as inconsistent with the fundamental purpose of the Bible.
When discussing the context in which we read Scripture, there is an analogous rule. Call it the Rule of the Last (think Matthew 20:16, when Jesus says, “So the last will be first”): when interpreting Scripture, the experience of the marginalized and oppressed ought to be given priority. The logic of this rule is that the love of God is liberating and that Jesus Christ, by his own words, was sent “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Thus any reading that fails to lead to greater justice for oppressed persons—in fact, any reading that does not invite these persons to hold interpretative authority—should be excluded from the outset as inconsistent with the fundamental purpose of the Bible. Reading the Bible in prison is different from reading the Bible in the halls of power.
What the Rule of the Last means for many of us is that we are operating at a significant handicap if we attempt to do Bible study or worship without the voices and perspectives of marginalized and oppressed persons in our midst. We simply won’t be able to get certain things about the Bible right so long as we are reading it while isolated among people of relative affluence and privilege.
The next time you prepare to read Scripture, look around you. Who is reading along with you? Who is missing? To better understand the Bible, go find the ones Jesus called the least and the last and ask them if you might read these ancient words together.
Aric Clark is a writer, speaker, and Presbyterian minister living near Portland, Oregon. He is also the creator of LectionARIC, a YouTube channel devoted to reading the texts of religion and culture with “geeky irreverence.”