Gardener or God? An Extraordinary Case of Mistaken Identity

This time of year when the plum trees outside my bedroom window start to bloom, I always have an urge to plant something.

So this past Friday I packed my two-year-old into the car and we headed to the nearest plant center (a trip that nearly ended in disaster and with the loss of a finger, but that’s another story).

I’m an occasional gardener at best. I’m well aware that browsing the aisles for tulips and petunias to add to the unruly borders around my apartment building doesn’t make me a true gardener, but my occasional gardening has at least given me real respect for those who have mastered the craft.

Gardening at its best falls somewhere in the space between science and art. Gardening well requires constant attention and patience, intervention and restraint, creativity and knowledge, labor and love. Master gardeners know when to prune and when to wait, when to till and when to allow a field to lie fallow, when to sow and when to harvest. They attend to their plants through their entire life cycle, often looking to cultivate both beauty and nourishment.

Could Jesus be a Gardener?

Gardening isn’t an activity I typically associate with Jesus. But this week while reading through John’s gospel I was struck by the curious detail that when Mary first encountered Jesus outside the empty tomb, she supposed he was the gardener.

The morning of the resurrection must have been disorienting. Matthew records Mary’s meeting with Jesus, but pivots quickly to another scene. Mark, too, mentions that Jesus appeared to Mary, but concedes that the disciples “refused to believe” her testimony. Luke notes that her witness appeared to the disciples as nonsense, quite possibly because it seemed so implausible that a resurrected savior could be mistaken for a gardener.

Only John allows us to linger awhile with Mary at the empty tomb. Only John fleshes out her strange experience, leaving us to wonder at the meaning of it all.

Let’s pick up with John’s narration in chapter 20:

“Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’

Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’

Let’s pause for a moment to take this in: Mary supposed Jesus to be the gardener. She saw and spoke with the one who had freed her spirit, who had called her and broken bread with her, but she didn’t recognize him. She mistook him for the gardener.

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This is such an improbable, unexpected detail in the narrative that it strikes me as authentic. It rings true precisely because it is so incredible. How could she possibly think Jesus was the gardener?

The Resurrection: A Story too Strange to Invent

If the disciples had invented or hallucinated the resurrection, as some scholars have claimed, then it seems hard to believe they would have come up with a story like this. If they had conspired together to write an account that would convince their contemporaries that Jesus had risen from the dead, it’s a stretch to believe they would have imagined he looked like a gardener.

Why not describe the shine seen in the Transfiguration? Why not reach back to the prophetic vision of Daniel, who saw the Son of Man with a face that flashed like lightening and a body gleaming like beryl and eyes like flaming torches (Daniel 10). The apocalyptic prophetic tradition offers compelling images that would be much more awe inspiring than a gardener. Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to have been at least as glorious in appearance? Wouldn’t he have been dazzlingly radiant too?

It is clear from Mary’s testimony that Jesus did not appear in an exalted form. In fact, his appearance was so modest he was mistaken for a laborer.

Commenting on the gospel accounts of the post-resurrection sightings of Jesus, NT Wright says:

“I have a sense that they are saying, in effect, ‘I know this is extraordinary, but this is just how it was.’ They are, in effect, describing more or less exactly that for which Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15) provides the underlying theoretical framework: an event for which there was no precedent and of which there remains as yet no subsequent example, an event involving neither the resuscitation nor the abandonment of a physical body, but its transformation into a new mode of physicality.”

The Shocking Comedy that is Easter

The focal point of the resurrection is not the empty tomb; it is the appearance of Jesus in a way that shocked absolutely everyone that knew him. This is not the sort of story anyone would dream up. The accounts of the resurrection don’t read as legend, they read as comedy.

Reading Mary’s encounter with Jesus in John, it’s impossible not to appreciate the humor in the situation. But then, I begin to realize that there must be something more than humor here. After all, John is such a careful narrator; he’s so selective in his choice of events, so attentive to the meaning of Jesus’s symbolic actions. John’s gospel is oriented around signs that reveal the truth of incarnation—that God walked among us in the flesh. I begin to wonder if John recorded the detail that Mary first thought Jesus was a gardener because it revealed something essential about his true identity.

Flipping back a few pages in John’s gospel to Jesus’s last night with his disciples, I find that gardening was on Jesus’s mind.

I am the true vine and my Father is the vine dresser,” Jesus explained, “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”

God as Gardener

Jesus explicitly says that God is like a gardener. Specifically, God is a vine dresser, who masterfully tends his vineyard so that it will thrive. Listening to Jesus, the disciples would almost surely have caught the allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy of the vineyard:

“Let me sing a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
And he dug it all around,
removed its stones,
and planted it with the choicest vine.
And he built a tower in the middle of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then he expected it to produce good grapes…
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
 and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting…” —Isaiah 5:1-7

In Isaiah the tragedy is that the vineyard God planted didn’t yield the fruit he desired—rather than justice, it yielded bloodshed; rather than righteousness, it produced a cry of distress; rather than good grapes, it produced worthless ones. Because the vineyard produced violence and oppression, God tore down its walls and trampled its vines. There was destruction, rather than delicious harvest.

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But thankfully that’s not the end of the story. Because Isaiah 27 offers a hopeful vision of another vineyard:

A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
Every moment I water it.
Lest anyone punish it,
I keep it night and day…
In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots
And fill the whole world with fruit.”

Isaiah paints a picture of God as an attentive keeper of a vineyard. God is not an absentee landlord who employs others to do the hard work; rather, in these two passages we find God digging, removing stones, planting, protecting, watering. These texts are rich with imagery that almost invites us to imagine God with sweat on His brow and dirt under His fingernails. God is involved, actively working to create an environment in which his plants will flourish and fill the whole world with fruit. Alluding to Isaiah’s prophecy in John 15, Jesus explains that his followers will become a people organically connected to each other through him. The quality of fruit they produce will be directly related to the extent they stay connected to the true vine.

And here’s the thing: So long as we are abiding in Christ, we are the branches in God’s vineyard. We are the source of fruit that will fill the whole world.

Flourishing in God’s Garden

No wonder John preserves the fascinating detail that after the resurrection the first person to see Jesus thought he was a gardener. It turns out that gardening is an essential element of God’s relationship with us.

The image of God as gardener stretches my notions of what His sovereignty looks like in action. It makes me realize that my idea of His reign is often too one-dimensional. Tilling, sowing, pruning and watering are integral to the way God leads his people. One way God rules is by cultivating. God, himself, creates the conditions for his people to flourish, and by flourishing to nourish others.

Isaiah is not the only place in scripture we find God in the act of gardening. In Genesis 2 after God creates man, the next thing He does is to “plant a garden.” In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul envisions God as a garden supplier, providing “seed to the sower.” In Romans 11 Paul suggests that God is a horticulturist who grafts wild olive shoots into a cultivated olive tree—a metaphor for the way Gentiles will be welcomed into the family of God. Repeatedly, we find that God gardens, and when he is at work, He is cultivating those who have found their identity in Him.

Mary had found herself in Jesus. One of the most poignant moments of her encounter with Jesus outside the tomb is when he speaks her name, “Mary.” Immediately she recognizes her Lord. When he calls her by name, she knows him. Then she falls on the ground and clings to him. Her response was just as it should have been, full of irrepressible love that flows into worship.

The gospel accounts show us that Jesus is king and shepherd, rabbi and redeemer, living water and bread of life, resurrection and the light of the world. It turns out that in addition to being all these things and more, Jesus is also a gardener.

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11 thoughts on “Gardener or God? An Extraordinary Case of Mistaken Identity

  1. Excellent article! This part of the resurrection story has always baffled me a bit as well. Thank you for piecing it together and providing a beautiful picture of God as gardner.

  2. Tina, just last week I read the four gospel accounts of the resurrection so this is so timely. God as creator/gardener (Eden) is indeed a powerful image, and I think you’ve shown me that at the tomb, it wasn’t just a simple case of mistaken identity. I love that as we attempt gardening–even in small ways–planting seeds or bulbs, amending soil, pruning branches or propagating cuttings, we are being allowed to touch that mystery of life that comes from none other than the creator of the universe.

    1. Robin, I think it’s not a stretch to say that gardening is what we were made to do–caring for our world and for one another. These days things seem to have gone so badly off the rails. Still, there’s always a spring after a long winter!

  3. Tina, Just found your passage. Very touched, this this year is the first time my yard has looked like someone is tending to it. God has blessed me with a beautiful yard a he ability to allow me to help him with the care. I know it has been all his will that I’m even out there. I see the beauty in your pictures of your garden around you a what God has given us to see and enjoy. I hope my yard is enjoyed by others and God is really the gardener. Love you your family and your beautiful words. Aunt Toots

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