4th Sunday after Epiphany: Blessed are Who?
By: Emily Kahm
It is remarkable, and perhaps a little sad, how quickly I tune out the Beatitudes when they come up in the lectionary. “Blessed are the poor of yep, I remember how this one goes.” There’s a popular Catholic song by David Haas based on this reading called “Blest Are They.” The verses run together in my head, but they slowly build into a powerful and unforgettable refrain:
“Rejoice and be glad! Blessed are you, holy are you. Rejoice and be glad! Yours is the Kingdom of God!”
When I read the Beatitudes, I inevitably start doing so in the rhythm of that song. It’s joyous and affirming and a beautiful mix of both the meditative and the exuberant aspects of liturgy. It’s the kind of music that you inevitably end up humming after Sunday and well into Monday.
Reading it again, I wonder if the beauty of the hymn hasn’t clouded my memory of the actual passage. The refrain is directed at “you,” which I typically take to be “me.” But in scripture, Jesus actually switches subjects at the end of his list—for most of the lesson, he’s referring to “they,” a group of people presumably not present. It’s only at the end that he switches to the second person and says (to us, we presume) that we are blessed when we are insulted or persecuted. Up until that point, it’s not “us” being blessed; it’s “them.” The translation factor adds a new and confusing layer on top of this—was that how Jesus intended to say things? Furthermore, translations change the subject of each sentence dramatically. The poor in spirit is alternatively translated as “those who know they are spiritually poor,” “those who recognize they are spiritually helpless,” or “those who know there is nothing good in themselves.” While they may all be a translator’s earnest effort to bring Jesus’ words and meaning into modern English, they contain substantively different nuances and, perhaps, direct our attention to different people. So who, exactly, is blessed in all of this?
It’s easy to personalize readings that aren’t necessarily meant to be personalized. We can easily interpret “blessed are they who mourn,” to say “blessed am I when I mourn,” but that isn’t the way Jesus framed it. He’s speaking to a large crowd; certainly some among them are mourning, or are thirsting for righteousness, or making peace, but he calls their attention away from themselves and towards who is missing. His proclamations almost ask the question: “Who is it I know who is gentle and merciful and pure of heart, and do they know that they’re especially blessed?”
Catholic theologians incorporate this reading when explaining our doctrine of “preferential option for the poor,” that is, our recognition that those on the margins and those who are most negatively affected by the injustices of our world are especially beloved by God and must be especially served by us. Living with a preferential option for the poor means constantly looking around and wondering who we have left out so that we can find ways to bring them in. With this lens, we can see that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with taking the Beatitudes personally—that is, as all about ourselves—when we could instead be watching for these people who, in spite of their struggles, have a special closeness with the divine. Blessed are YOU, well-dressed widow who comes to Mass by herself every week. Blessed are YOU, mother of that noticeably squirmy preschooler and the baby who just discovered the fun of yelling in echo-y churches. Blessed are YOU, gentleman who looks like he’s been doing hard physical labor before church and didn’t have time to change clothes. And especially blessed are you, people who are so far away from me and my reality that I don’t even know your daily struggles. Because God’s blessings aren’t just about me—they’re about how I can bring blessing to your life.
 Good News Translation
 God’s Word Translation
 New Life Version
Emily Kahm is an adjunct instructor in Religion at Augustana College and a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. Her research interests include religious sexuality education, theological themes in video games and gaming, and lived religion. She lives in eastern Iowa with her spouse, Chris, and two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.