Mary Magdalene is lost in the grief following her rabbi, Jesus’, death. Then there is the shock of finding the tomb empty. She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who see the tomb and return home. Mary remains. She is weeping inconsolably when angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” In her deep loss she finds the words, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Then she turns and sees him, Jesus. He is standing in front of her, resurrected from the dead, never to die again. Mary is not flooded with joy. She is still lost in her grief. She doesn’t know that this is Jesus. She supposes that this man is the gardener.
Could Mary Magdalene have been more wrong? There are no stories of Jesus ever tending a garden. Once his ministry began, Jesus was never in one place long enough to plant and raise crops. He said in both Matthew and Luke, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head.”
When Jesus did tell stories of gardening, they were not exactly examples of wisdom from a master gardener. After all, Jesus told of a man sowing seed who did so by casting the seed broadly, so that he wasted seed on rocky soil, thorn-covered ground, and even the path through the garden. He was a wasteful gardener, and Jesus seems fine with what any careful sower would consider a misuse of the seeds.
Another time he told of a man who planted good seed only to have someone else come and plant weeds among his plants. When he is asked whether he wants the garden weeded, he says no. He prefers to let the weeds grow along with the good crop; they’ll sort the weeding out at harvest time.
Good gardeners weed their gardens all through the growing season. Could Jesus have been a gardener without knowing this? Obviously Jesus uses his gardening analogies to make points that have nothing to do with tending plants. In the process, he seems unconcerned about using farming analogies in a way that shows he knows how to garden.
But Mary’s confusion is short lived. Once Mary hears Jesus call her name, she recognizes Jesus for who he is and calls him Rabbouni, which means “my teacher.” Now this was fitting, for Jesus had not given gardening advice, but he had been a gifted teacher who used stories from everyday life to teach the people.
It was a simple case of mistaken identity. She thought the man in the garden was a gardener, but it turned out to be Jesus, her teacher. Yet, before we move on too quickly, we do well to recognize that this was no small detail. Why do we know about this brief case of mistaken identity? The only one in the garden with Jesus was Mary Magdalene. She thought this momentary lapse was worth retelling, and John felt it had to be shared in his gospel. There was something to this mistaken identity worth holding on to. On reflection, Mary had Jesus’ identity more closely aligned to the Truth when she thought he was the gardener, and missed a deeper way of seeing who Jesus was and is when she called him “my teacher.”
God had always been a gardener. The Book of Genesis tells us, “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed the man he had created.”
And John’s gospel tells us that on the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He said this in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest. Then in John 19 we are told, “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before.”
This is a second garden, one that, theologically, takes the place of Eden. For in John 12, Jesus had said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” and it is Jesus’ earthly life, his mortal remains, which are laid to rest in this garden. Jesus dies and is resurrected, and so bears much fruit in defeating death itself.
With this in mind, look again at what our gospel reading reveals. Jesus’ whole life and ministry were part of a project undertaken by God to help humanity find its way back into the Garden of Eden. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the final stages in his defeat of death itself. The second person of the Trinity willingly offered his life for the sins of the world. Now through faith in Jesus, all can regain their original innocence and make their way back into the Kingdom of God, back into the garden. And now at the culmination of this long project, working its way through all human history, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus as the gardener. And in this, she is the most right.
Jesus was not simply a teacher. He didn’t come to teach lessons to prepare you for a test. Jesus came to work the soil in his father’s garden, to help spark spiritual growth in the depths of your soul.
Jesus was the Good Gardener who came not to judge the world. He didn’t come to separate the wheat from the chaff. Jesus came to save the world, to work the hard soil in the human heart. Jesus came to give us living water so that we could grow, blossom, and bear much fruit. This is why the mistaken identity was so memorable. Jesus, the one sent to tend God’s garden, was mistaken for a gardener. He wasn’t a teacher who was once mistaken for a gardener, but a gardener who was frequently mistaken to merely be a teacher.
If you leave this Easter and think Jesus was simply a great teacher, then you will have missed the point of this great feast day of the church. For on this day we gather not to remember something Jesus taught. We are gathered today to remember that God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruits of a new creation, a new garden.
Leave instead challenged to think of Jesus as more than a teacher. He did not give us “Seven Keys to Spiritual Riches” or “Ten Laws for a Successful Life” or any other simplistic teaching. Jesus came “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us” to God. He came to offer himself, “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”
When in disobedience and sin, we humans turned our backs on God, Jesus entered into the chaos we created and planted the garden anew, planting his Word in our hearts.
Within each of us is some stony soil. Within each of us there are weeds. We see this too in the disciples who Jesus knew and loved and taught. They lived alongside him seeing with their own eyes God with us. Yet, each of them fell short of the glory of God. On the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane most of his followers fled and none stood alongside him in his trial. None were arrested with him or crucified alongside their rabbi. The grace of God is shown clearly as Jesus appears to the disciples in a locked room. They are gathered in fear. Jesus offers peace.
Yes, he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but Jesus is also the Good Gardener who never gives up on the plant, tending it back to life and helping it bear fruit. Jesus came to offer the loving care that a gardener gives to that beloved prize-winning plant that is the centerpiece of the garden. That plant is you. And the story of this Easter is that the gardener did all he did in order for you to have life and have it abundantly.