God as Gardener
In 2017, the volume on the Gospel of John in the Earth Bible Commentary Series was published. Written by Margaret Daly-Denton, the commentary’s subtitle is “Supposing Him to be the Gardener”. As many would be aware, these words come from John 20:15, during the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus. A few years ago, I heard Daly-Denton present a paper at a biblical conference and she commented on the subtitle she had given to her then work-in-progress. In relation to the context of John 20:15, she said, “Of course, the irony is that Jesus is the gardener!”
Artwork from centuries ago indicates that understanding Jesus to be the gardener is not a new idea. In Lavinia Fontana’s painting (1581) of the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Jesus wears a gardener’s hat and holds a shovel. In a 17th century painting, Rembrandt’s Jesus carries a small trowel and, once again, wears a gardener’s hat. This imagery of gardener may be a helpful metaphor to explore further in this Season of Creation.
The first words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning …” (John 1:1), recall the first words of the book of Genesis (Gen 1:1). Intertextually, readers or hearers of John’s Gospel are reminded of the story/stories of creation in Genesis 1-3. In Gen 2:8, we read that “God planted a garden in Eden”. God as gardener (see also Genesis 2:9; 3:8) is one of the images for God that we encounter in these early chapters of Genesis. For Daly-Denton: “… as ‘the gardener’ – someone totally aligned with the Creator’s intentions for the flourishing of the creation – Jesus can be a model and an inspiration for his twenty-first-century followers who are learning to see Earth care as a constitutive part of their life as his disciples” (p. 14).
Central to the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John is the image of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-11). This organic image of fertility and interconnectedness gives insight into the relationship of Jesus and his disciples, a relationship of indwelling or abiding. The branches need the vine as a source of life, and the vine needs the branches to bear fruit. In John 15:1, we read “my Father is the vine-grower (geōrgos)” (NRSV). The Greek word, geōrgos, can also be translated as ‘farmer’ or ‘gardener’. Literally, geōrgos means ‘one who engages in the cultivation of the land’ since it is derived from gē ‘land’ and ergon ‘work’ (Daly-Denton, 14). So at this key point of the Farewell Discourse, the image of God as gardener re-emerges.
Moreover, only in the Gospel of John, a garden is referred to several times in the passion narrative. A garden is linked to the place of his arrest, his crucifixion and his burial:
“he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered” (18:1).
“One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’” (18:26)
“Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” (19:41-42).
“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said …” (20:15).
Mary Coloe (2013; p. 77) draws attention to the position of Jesus’ cross in John’s description: “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle” (19:18). The explicit naming of Jesus as ‘in the middle’ is only in John’s Gospel, and intertextually reminds readers of the tree of life that is in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). This allows for the possibility of identifying the cross of Jesus with the tree of life.
Elizabeth Johnson (2009) brings an ecological focus to this understanding: “An ecological Christology interprets the cross, revered as the tree of life, as a sign that divine compassion encompasses the natural world, bearing the cost of new life throughout the endless millennia of dying entailed by evolution.” Johnson adds, “Divine purpose is ultimately cosmocentric and biocentric, not merely anthropocentric.” In other words, humans are not the centre of the universe! For some of us, this is a paradigm shift of a similar magnitude to Copernicus’ sixteenth century discovery that Earth travels around the sun and not vice-versa.
Earlier in this paper, Margaret Daly-Denton’s words invited us to be inspired by the image of Jesus as gardener and to learn “to see Earth care as a constitutive part of [our] life as his disciples”. In this Season of Creation and beyond, may we grow in this understanding and call.
Coloe, Mary L. “Creation in the Gospel of John”. In Creation is Groaning:Biblical and theological Perspectives. Edited by Mary L. Coloe, 71-90. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013.
Daly-Denton, Margaret. John: An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener. London: Bloomsbury, 2017
Johnson, Elizabeth. “An Earthy Christology”, America (2009), https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/693/article/earthy-christology
Messages to: Elizabeth Dowling rsm (ISMAPNG)