I: Thinking He was the Gardener
On a sunny morning in late May my wife Olivia and I started our garden. With warm spring air and birdsong all around us we knelt together, digging through soft loam to plant cucumbers, jalapenos, several varieties of tomatoes, and green beans. Soon there would spring life from this immobile dirt! That this earth responds to us and is creating with us, in my mind, is an invitation into hope. We hope that our small seeds grow and produce. We hope that our plants remain healthy, grow strong, and ward off disease. We hope that the water and nutrients we provide encourage the yielding of a good crop.
Working in and with the natural world is my passion. Ever since I was a small boy growing up in a house in the woods, nature has felt like home. So I pursued a degree in environmental biology in school and worked at low paying internships for a dream - to care for the natural world I had grown to love. Apart from some time working in other fields to pay the bills while questioning my life’s path, I have by the grace of God ended up back in a conservation role that I truly enjoy. The philosophy of conservation today is very focused on this: on restoration, on healing, and on mending the relationship between people and planet. This is in large part due to the state of the world’s climate and the rate of worldwide biodiversity loss. I love what I do because it makes me feel like I am doing something restorative, something to combat environmental crises.
Seven years ago, while I was still at college, I attended the AuSable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona, Michigan. There I had the privilege to learn from very passionate professors who shared their love for God and the natural world. One of my professors, Dr. Dave Warners of Calvin College, taught a class on Restoration Ecology that really opened my mind to the possibilities of creation care as a calling from God. I will never forget the moment during one lecture when Dr. Warners put a painting of the Resurrection up on the screen. It was an artistic rendering of when Mary recognizes Jesus at the tomb, and most peculiarly, Jesus was in dirty clothes and was holding a shovel.
Dr. Warners went on to explain that this piece of artwork was based on the story of the resurrection as told in John’s gospel. If we take a quick look, we’ll see that Mary first mistakes Jesus to be a gardener:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[c] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). ~John 20:11-16
Until that day in Dr. Warners class, I had never given that passage a second thought. Perhaps this was actually no mistake but an indication of what Jesus was actually doing, freshly resurrected. Gardening.
While researching for this article I searched for the painting that I saw during that class but was unable to find it. Instead I found dozens more just like it. Apparently this modest mention of Jesus as a gardener has sparked the imagination of artists at least as far back as the Baroque period. To my great amusement most of the paintings feature the Savior in a great, floppy, sun hat. If you want to read more and geek out on art, be my guest. Read the “She mistook him as the gardener” by Victoria Emily Jones of the Art and Theology blog, which I referenced for this article.
This representation of Jesus, mistaken as a gardener, begs an obvious question: what was he doing? Why was the Creator of all things putzing around in flower beds, if that was indeed what he was doing? You would think that maybe he would run right up to Mary and the disciples, ecstatic, ready to party! The victory is won! While I don’t think we can know for certain if this was actually the case, I think it is an assumption with powerful meaning.
II: The Restoration Project
Let’s harken back to Genesis for a minute. When humanity fell in the garden, the consequences were threefold. Three relationships become ruptured: humanity to God, humanity to humanity, and humanity to creation. All of these facets of existence got screwed up and the consequences were not just spiritual but physical. Pain while bearing children. Hard toil to grow food from the ground. And then humanity was made to leave Eden, this most perfect of environments. The natural world is wrapped up in this fall with us.
Then there is Jesus. God’s redemption plan. Come to restore our relationship with him. But what of the other relationships? Did God come to earth to only reconcile humanity to himself? If all of creation suffered the consequences of the first sin, wouldn’t God also be in the business of redeeming all of creation?
I think he is. Then why didn’t he teach about environmental justice, you may ask? I think he did.
When we look through the lens of Jesus’ teachings, he addresses loving God and our fellow human beings but not creation care. At least, he doesn’t address it in the way we would expect (much like many of the things he taught). Jesus didn’t describe the importance of caring for this tree or that beetle. He didn’t tell the disciples to share the hope of his abundant grace and also discuss climate change. Instead, we find a more subtle nod to the natural world by the Savior.
An article by Chris Meehan for the Christian Reformed Church describes this “nod” very well. He interviewed Christian and environmental scientist Cal DeWitt of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on his thoughts of creation care and Jesus’ ministry.
Interesting to note, said DeWitt, is that much of Christ’s ministry took place in natural places in Judea, Israel and elsewhere. Christ frequently used nature to help illustrate his messages. “He did much of his teaching on field trips,” said DeWitt. Christ spoke of the birds in the sky, calmed a stormy sea, was transfigured on the top of a mountain, and often renewed himself through prayer in the wilderness. He taught in gardens, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and walked through a field of grain on the Sabbath to show that every day is holy in God’s world. He also used a fig tree to illustrate a message about unfaithfulness. He even compared himself to a vine and said his followers were the branches.
There is a wonderful pattern here. The Great Creator is using nature as both the subject and backdrop of his teachings. Now it makes a little more sense why Mary could mistake Jesus as a humble gardener. Perhaps he was pruning a grape vine, planting a tree, picking olives for a post-resurrection snack, or simply bending to admire a snail or an opening flower.
Victoria Emily Jones, in the article “She mistook him for the gardener”, points out that John’s gospel as a whole echoes the theology of new creation all throughout it.
For example, the prologue to [John’s] Gospel starts, “In the beginning . . . ,” an obvious echo of the prologue to Genesis. In 19:41 he mentions that Jesus was buried in a garden, and in chapter 20, that he was found walking around in it. He mentions twice that Jesus rose on “the first day” of the week, as if this were the first day of a new creation (cf. Genesis 1:3–5).
Then Jones turns to the matter at hand, the Savior-disguised-as-gardener mystery.
And then he has Mary mistake Jesus for the gardener. When taken in concert with Paul’s conception of Jesus as the Second Adam (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45), these allusions suggest that Jesus is the gardener of the new Eden, doing what Adam could not do. His resurrection broke ground in this garden, marking the beginning of a massive restoration project.
A “massive restoration project”. I don’t know about you, but that gives me chills. Jesus celebrated his victory by getting straight to the good work of the redemption of all things.
III: Commissioned to Care
Note that Jones writes that Jesus began a massive restoration project. So, who’s to finish it? Well, that would be us. The ones he has commissioned to love him and love neighbor. But are Christian’s really responsible for the state of the natural world? World Vision’s 2013 publication Why Are We Stewards of Creation, written by Jared Hyneman and Christopher Shore, is a great reference for that very question. In one of the subsections, entitled Bad Eschatology is No Excuse for Human Irresponsibility, the authors lay plain the fact that even if someone believes in an end to the world that involves “the burning of everything” the call of God in Genesis to take care of the world is not once revoked in all of scripture. I won’t wade any further into debates on eschatology, but World Vision has a good point. No matter someone’s position, God’s first command to us is not nullified by a destructive end to the world. As for me, I’d rather our work not be a total wash, but enough said on that for now.
Perhaps the most important reason why God’s command holds relevance no matter our beliefs is because of the world’s poor. The poor, who hold a special place in God’s heart all throughout scripture, are the economic group most closely tied to the natural world. Again Hyneman and Shore write,
Many of the poorest around the world are engaged in rain-fed agriculture, in subsistence farming, in artisanal fishing and in pastoralism. These livelihood pursuits are viable only when the earth’s ecosystems both work and work predictably.
The World Vision writers then go on to quote the Eastern Orthodox All Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who once stated,
The way we respond to the natural environment directly reflects the way we treat human beings. The willingness to exploit the environment is revealed in the willingness to permit avoidable human suffering. So the survival of the natural environment is also the survival of ourselves. When will we understand that a crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and sin against God?
And the Patriarch’s words echo Martin Luther King Jr.’s when he said simply,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
These are powerful and convicting words, especially for the affluent among us. Although it may be far from our minds, we are all dependent on the natural world, its cycles, and its services. This is not something that we can escape and wish away with concrete jungles and perfect lawns. Our relationship with the natural world is unavoidable. If we are part of the created order, then caring for it blesses humanity as a whole, especially those of us who cling to it for sustenance and livelihood.
IV: Little Acts of Hope
When I began writing and researching for this article I had a hard time crafting what I wanted to say. I ended up doing quite a bit of soul searching. At times during my writing I questioned whether caring for creation was even worth it. As with so many injustices in the world, the sheer amount of brokenness can be immobilizing. I was also grieving fact that there are a lot of things that I could be doing to live a more ecologically friendly life, or to support the causes of environmentalism, the reasons for which are often circumstantial but sometimes not. It’s hard to change habits, or even to begin to change them. Even as a person who loves caring for the natural world, I endure a little (maybe a lot) of hypocrisy now and then.
I want you to know that I get it. People don’t often respond well when they are told they need to be doing more. We could all be doing more. What I want to propose to you instead is this idea that I got from my wife (who is very smart and the pastor of our local church). While I was explaining my dilemma to her, she responded by saying that we do what we can do. Little acts of hope. Then we entrust the rest to God in his infinite wisdom and grace. We are, after all, only one person.
She said something like that and it was simple yet profound. We are just little vessels of hope, doing the small things that we can, and leaving the rest to God. With creation care, a little act of hope could be anything. Maybe it is cutting back your shower time to conserve water. Maybe it is volunteering with local parks or conservation districts. Maybe it is taking a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature. Maybe it is planning to do bigger, more sustainable life changes down the road (there’s nothing wrong with not making a change all at once). Maybe it is answering a call to be a conservationist, a marine biologist, a nature photographer, a climate scientist, or a park director.
Or maybe the calling, the nudge, is simply to start (or continue) to garden and bring in fresh, homegrown produce from your little space in the ground. I feel a connection with God when Olivia and I do this. It warms my heart to see the work of our hands and the fruit of the ground. In our own, small, hopeful way we are joining Jesus on his knees in that Easter garden. Tending creation. Doing the work of hopeful gardeners.
- Evan Stern
Evan is a deep lover of the natural world, especially of birds, little streams, and quiet woods. He is a graduate of Houghton University ('18), and is currently helping farmers in Ohio to adopt sustainable agricultural practices on their farmland. In his spare time you might find him birding, biking, drawing maps, or spending quality time with friends and family. He lives near Columbus, Ohio, with his awesome wife, who is the pastor of their church.
(2021). New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (Bible). National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Hyneman, J., & Shore, C. (2013, May 1). Why Are We Stewards of Creation? World Vision’s Biblical Understanding of How We Relate to Creation. World Vision: Natural Environment and Climate Issues.
Jones, V. E. (2016, April 5). She mistook him for the gardener. Art & Theology. Retrieved November 21, 2023, fromhttps://artandtheology.org/2016/04/05/she-mistook-him-for-the-gardener/
King, M. L., Jr. (2018). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Penguin Classics.
Meehan, C. (2011, October 12). Creation Care Follows the Steps of Jesus. Christian Reformed Church. Retrieved November 21, 2023, from https://www.crcna.org/news-and-events/news/creation-care-follows-steps-jesus
Scripts is a collaborative effort from a wonderful "cloud of witnesses" writing on issues of creation care. All contributors are Christians seeking to embody earth care in their own context.