I met Jesus the other day in a public restroom at OR Tambo airport. He greeted me with a cloth in the one hand and disinfectant in the other saying: “Welcome to my office!” His office was pristine and his pride sincerely genuine. To my shame I only gave him a tip and a thank you. Only later on the plane back home did the thought cross my mind: Maybe that was Jesus?
Two millennia ago a girl named Mary met Jesus in a graveyard garden. At first glance he looked like the local gardener.
Why a garden? The day after the resurrection John takes us back to the beginning. The story of God and us started in a garden, God getting his hands dirty with chaos and darkness, working life into soil, water, light and air, resting after a hard week’s work. Old Adam getting his first job description, “tend to God’s garden”. John introduces us to Jesus, the Neo Adam. The first encounter with this new Adam is also in a garden. God’s story reaches full circle. Jesus the Resurrected Gardener tending to God’s new creation. Later on in the Scriptures Paul reflects further on this theme saying “Christ is the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created.”
Reading the stories of Jesus in a garden confronts us with state of the garden(s) we call Earth. It is impossible to ignore the fact that so many of the settings for the Jesus narrative are played out in relationship with nature. The metaphors of the gospel are embedded in and born from the first garden. To read the gospel without noticing the desert, the “veld”, the ocean, the flowers, the orchids, the mountains and the gardens is almost impossible. Yet that is exactly what the church has done for a very long time. Otherwise we would not have been in such a big mess right now.
Jesus a gardener? But this essay is not necessarily about the search for a faithful eco-theology, although that goes without saying. I am fascinated with Jesus being the gardener. Eugene Peterson writes that nature, “for all its considerable attractions, it is considerably deficient in person”. A garden longs for a gardener, more accurately a good gardener. I suck at gardening and my garden is not silent about it. Weeds take over and reveal my lack of a “hands on” approach, young plants die in the winter frost and old beddings cry out for more creativity and beauty. O but when the gardener loves and understands his garden! When he or she puts time, effort and patience into it, it flourishes to say the least.
Eden was created by and for the Good Gardener through whom God reveals life and creativity. To love the garden is to love the person taking care of it.
I, on the other hand need to make a confession: I struggle with Jesus being a gardener. I grew up in a context where a gardener is called a “tuinman” ,“tuinboy” or “die boy” depending on what side of the railway tracks you lived, the latter being less political correct. As a child it was often my duty to make sure he is sorted at lunch time. The order was pretty standard: Four thick slices of bread covered with butter, two eggs fried, one slice polony and a tin cup of sweet “plastic koffie”. He used to sit in the sun or the shade depending on the Western Cape weather and ate his meal in silence, with only the dog and cat as companions. On any good day a gardener is dirty, scruffy and sweaty, covered with hours of hard work and sunburn. Yet Mary confused Jesus with one.
Even more confusing is that this happened after the resurrection, after the big victory, after he was crowned Christ, the Saviour. The shackles of death are broken, hell is overcome and a new life is possible all because of Jesus, what a letdown then to be confused with someone toiling away in soil, stone and manure.
Jesus the Resurrected King (as describe in the last book of the Bible) was at first glance mistaken for someone working in a graveyard garden. What does that say about Jesus, about our Christology, our images, metaphors, music, prayers and liturgy?
Jesus “die boy” My friend Reggie Nel is spot on when saying Jesus was not white. Especially in a world where white represents upper/middle class suburbia, private schools, swimming pools and holidays at the coast.
In this story Jesus was a “tuinjong” or rather “die boy”.
For me as a white “Suid-Afrikaans” (currently suburbia) believer, who grew up eating and drinking out of a different set of cutlery than the person working in our garden, this encounter with Jesus poses a big problem. Because: “die boy” is black. He comes from the homelands. He lives in a shack. He did not finish high school. “Die boy” works in my garden. He broke the “grassnyer”. “Die boy” drinks his “soet koffie” out of the old chipped cup. He walks back home. My neighbour keeps his children away from “die boy”. We all are a little scared of him.
But “die Boy” is Jesus and like Mary, I also confused Jesus for just the gardener, for someone I can dish out stale bread and polony, while I helped myself to toasted rye bread and Serrano Ham.
This brings me back to the restroom worker at the airport who might have been Jesus. The way Jesus reintroduced himself to the world after the cross and the empty grave invites his followers to a new way of relational living. These strange encounters with the people who knew him best, challenges the church (humanity?) to take another look at the stranger and the poor. After Mary confused Jesus for a gardener, every other gardener for the rest of her life would have gotten a second glance, a look accompanied with an expectation. The same is true for the two fellows who travelled to Emmaus and struggled to see Jesus in the form of a stranger on the road. Will they ever be able to treat any other stranger as if he or she is just a stranger passing by?
The more I read this story, the more I imagine the alternative. Is it possible to make the same mistale as Mary, but the other way around? Can we learn the art of mistaking ordinary people for Jesus? The invitation of the Jesus story is to confuse a gardener with Jesus, to make the foolish mistake of treating people as if they are the Resurrected Messiah.
How can I, after reading that his close friends discovered Jesus in the oddest of times through the oddest of people, not expect to meet Jesus on my way to pee?
There is an old legend of a monastery in the woods with unresolved conflict and envy amongst the monks living there. Out of desperation the Father went to an old Jewish Rabbi who also lived in the forest. The only advice that the Rabbi gave him was that one of his monks were indeed the Messiah. The Father walked back to monastery very confused. At his arrival the rest of the monks were waiting for the news from the rabbi. “One of you is the Messiah.” the father spoke quietly. During the coming weeks the monks could not stop talking about the fact that one of them was indeed the Messiah. As time went on they started treating themselves and the other differently, as if one of them were the Messiah.
Madiba, a messiah. Let’s for a moment confuse an old president for Jesus. Here in South Africa the birthday of Nelson Mandela is getting bigger and bigger, to the point where we celebrate it almost with an air of religiosity. Lately his birthday aka Mandela Day is accompanied with an invitation: To give 67 minutes of your time in doing something good for your community. 67 minutes of following in Madiba’s footsteps. 67 minutes of becoming Madiba-like. 67 minutes of practising the art of mistaking ordinary people for Nelson Mandela.
I can’t help but to see the connection between Jesus the Resurrected Messiah and Nelson the South-African messiah. Maybe that is what distinguished Madiba from other heads of state and what distinguished Jesus from other ancient Jewish Rabbis, both practised the art of treating ordinary people, events, places and created things as if they where God with us.
The same is true with other messiah figures in other cultures and religions. The lives of people like Abraham, Moses, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Mohammed, Buddha, Tutu and co. invites humanity into the graveyard gardens where ordinary men and women covered with sweat and dirt are confused with Christ the Saviour of the world.
Imagine such a garden...