Do You See What I See? – Amy Carr reflects on walking without stumbling along waterways, roadsides, and temple byways.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 23-29, Year B (2021, 2024)
If the psalmist reminds us of our fragility, the prophet Jeremiah envisions our safely belonging to one another and to a land we can traverse without stumbling. Jeremiah, like our gospel story, centers the blind whose sight enables him to walk “on the way” with Jesus. Roads and walking places take a vertical turn in Hebrews, in the passageway of prayers between earth and heaven located in the heavenly Temple where Jesus serves as our high priest. My musings here follow these various pathways, sowing along them the seeds of questions about how to sojourn through our concerns about our environment.
The first place I want to plant a seed is with this line in the psalm:
“Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (Psalm 126:4).
The psalmist compares biblical Israel’s experience of zigzagging between having and losing a place of their own to a natural phenomenon: just as a desert bed that is normally dry fills up with water when it rains or floods, so too the exiled people of Israel can return (or had already returned) to their home in Zion. Their sense of precarity is then described agriculturally: sowing their seeds means risking crop failure, or with the right conditions, “com[ing] home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:6).
Today our eyes might catch on the word “watercourses” and find our focus less on getting home (unless we are indeed among the many homeless or refugees) and more on whether the land we live is inhabitable and arable. Here the restoration of water fortune can be not a metaphor, but the direct heart of the matter:
“Aaron Fukuda admits that the 15-acre sunken field behind his office doesn’t look like much. It’s basically a big, wide hole in the ground behind the headquarters of the Tulare Irrigation District, in the southern part of California’s fertile Central Valley. But ‘for a water resources nerd like myself, it’s a sexy, sexy piece of infrastructure,’ says Fukuda, the district’s general manager.”[i] Like the Negeb, that hole—and other often dry fields and beds like it—can fill with water when it floods and help to replenish the groundwater supply. So as less snow falls in the mountains, more farmers in the Central Valley are capturing the rain.
A water supply also features in Jeremiah’s prophetic declaration that the people will return from exile to a land that will nourish them: “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble” (Jeremiah 31:9b). Jeremiah’s sense of the people of Israel isn’t of resentful exiled warriors reconquering their country with victory cries. Instead, God tells Jeremiah to announce a gathering from the ends of the earth of “a great company” of the most vulnerable people: the blind, the lame, pregnant women, women actively giving birth to a child. God will care for them not as a heroic military leader or king, but with the intimate attention a father might bring to the details of ensuring the well-being of his entire household (31:9c). And the image of that care: brooks of water the entire family can easily access, even the disabled.
Today’s epistle and gospel readings focus not on return to a land that can nourish us, but on Jesus as the one who himself heals and restores—as an elder brother, rabbi, king (“Son of David, have mercy on me!” cries the blind beggar), and high priest who mediates all that is unwell in our midst as an infinite source of renewal. What might we notice if we listen to these hungry-for-healing texts with an ear attuned to more-than-human needs?
Because its narrative locus is the Temple, Hebrews is already implicitly concerned with the well-being of the entire land. Jews would journey to the Temple to make offerings that were part of the cycle of gift exchange that, by keeping people relating well to God, would bless the people and the land itself (which could be defiled by the people’s sins, or kept holy when the people were holy). But with its Hellenistic, Platonizing imagination, Hebrews takes that Temple out of this world in a way that allows it to continue to exist always—an otherworldly turn that ironically intensifies its ability to matter still to Christians, who through Jesus as Christ are drawn into a sibling relationship with Jews and a covenantal call to be responsible stewards of the earth on which we are to dwell in a sacred way.
The unordinary time and space Jesus inhabits as high priest allows him to be present in an interactive way to all times and places—in the spirit of the attentive father depicted in Jeremiah. Hebrews speaks in an eternal present tense that is not still but ever-moving—a perpetual present tense of ongoing, endless intercession by Jesus as our undying high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Jewish midrashic allegories about Melchizedek somewhat resemble our superhero and speculative fiction genres of today, which also place other-than-ordinary-human beings as problem-solvers amid dystopic visions of civilizational collapse. Here the flesh-and-blood Temple in Jerusalem is seen as but a shadow of a heavenly Temple that is the point of holy contact with the fragile, easily polluted landscape of earth. The earth needs constant renewal because its people fail to keep the commandments and care for one another and the earth with the consistency it needs. But now, instead of our intercessors being mortal priests who die and are replaced in a long series, an eternal intercessor is imagined: Melchizedek who met Abraham, whose death was never reported so who is believed to be a priest from the heavenly rather than shadowy Jerusalem, a priest without beginning or end. Jesus fits this description of a superhero priest, who now comes to earth and makes the greatest single sacrifice that suffices for all time, thus ending any need for daily animal sacrifices (Hebrews 7:27). How is such a strangely present Jesus a companion in our efforts to restore our waterways without water, or defiled with nitrates and PFAS chemicals? Or to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions?
Hebrews is an invitation to pray as sci-fi Christians. It evokes a heavenly Temple not as escapist fantasy, but in the spirit of indigenous speculative fiction writers today who call attention to the history of colonialism, displacement, and wounding of the earth with characters who name what’s going on and imagine an otherwise way of being. As Erika Wurth writes regarding Native speculative fiction, “Sitting at the intersection of much history and hurt in Indian country are issues like citizenship in a Native nation, blood quantum, language, land, right to spirituality and the idea surrounding who should be able to make Native art. Our creative works — speculative fiction, in particular — have the ability to center these ever-present issues of Native peoples without tethering us to an imagined, one-dimensional and stereotyped past.”[ii] Not so unsimilarily, as rabbinic Judaism developed a post-Temple Jewish life in a new direction, so too did Christian re-imaginings of the Temple with Jesus as the eternal high priest—one way of reckoning with the loss of the last remnant of Jewish indigenous identity in Jerusalem in the first century. We who are Christians stand in the trajectory of this reimagination, with one of our images of Jesus being the ever-available intercessor who stands attentive to our prayers about all the world’s wounding and woundedness. Wurth quotes Cheri Dimaline, author of Empire of Wild, whose words could be a gloss on Hebrews’ vision of a broken world being held always in the praying heart of Jesus, despite appearances to the contrary: “Art is . . . that which shows us the barriers we thought were walls were only shadows after all.”
This is not to say, of course, that the earth’s warming and polluting are illusions, that there is a deeper truth that matters more. The Jesus we encounter in Hebrews 7 is right here interceding, not drawing us out of earth into heaven. The heavenly dimension in which the crucified, risen, ascended Jesus dwells is here and now, if not in ways we can perceive by just walking to one physical location on earth. We need our eyes opened to detect how Jesus stands at the intersection of heaven and earth, the high priest and sacrifice and Temple all at once.
Enabling sight is Jesus’ very mission in Mark 10:46-52—although only after Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, calls out repeatedly from his spot on the roadside even after being shushed. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t assume what Bartimaeus wants is to be cured of his physical blindness. He listens to what Bartimaeus actually says: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” What sort of mercy would Bartimaeus like to receive? “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Only when Bartimaeus names his precise request — “My teacher, let me see again”—does Jesus announce that Bartimaeus’ own faith has made him well.
When we approach Jesus, our high priest and healer, standing at the intersection of here-now and eternity, what do we want Jesus to do for us and for our planet? When our intercessory prayers are brought before the Triune God, and our eyes and ears are opened—our needs met by solutions—will we be a Bartimaeus and immediately get up and follow Jesus “on the way?”
Maybe then we can join the “great company” of the blind, the lame, the pregnant and birthing in finding brooks of water we can walk along without stumbling.
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
[i] Dan Charles, California Farmers Find Ways To Save Water : NPR, 10-5-21
[ii] Erika Wurth, “Not Your Grandmother’s Native American Fiction,” All-Arts, March 11, 2021. Subsequent quotes are from the same source.