“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.’”
John 20:15 (ESV)
The old joke goes:
I’ve never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but it turns out I was wrong.
Sometimes we can be right, think we’re wrong, and never really know just how right we are.
In John’s gospel, the account of the resurrection takes a while to unfold. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, presumably to complete the burial customs which were hurriedly performed three days earlier on account of the beginning of Sabbath. When she arrived, she found that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away, so she ran to tell Simon Peter and John. The disciples quickly returned, saw the burial cloths that had been on Jesus’ head and body, then they returned to their homes.
But Mary stayed. John’s gospel says she “stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.” Mary saw two angels who asked her why she wept. “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” Mary replied. Then she turned, and she saw Jesus, but she did not know it was Him. She supposed him to be the gardener. Jesus repeated the angels’ question, “Why are you weeping?” Mary replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid hi, and I will take him away.”
Now I’ve often heard this mistaken identity to have been caused by Mary’s overwhelming grief (it is hard to see through such tears), or perhaps her inability to comprehend the possibility of the risen Lord (she was looking for a dead man, not a living one). The ESV Commentary says, “His body would have also looked different, for now he had his original youthful appearance of perfect health, in contrast to what he had become through his tremendous suffering and disfigurement.” Perhaps all of that is possible. But perhaps there is also a simpler reason.
Maybe Mary thought he was a gardener because he was gardening. When I take my car to the garage to be serviced, I don’t automatically assume that everyone there is a mechanic. Usually there are a group of people sitting off to the side, drinking coffee, telling stories, and reading magazines. I could go to them and tell them what’s wrong with my car, and they may have some advice, but they aren’t necessarily mechanics. No, I want to talk to the guy who’s under the hood, has grease on his hands, and maybe is wearing a uniform. I will look for the guy who looks like a mechanic and acts like a mechanic.
When Mary saw Jesus and thought he was a gardener, could it have been because he looked and acted like a gardener? Isn’t it possible that Jesus was pulling weeds, breaking up the ground, and planting seeds?
This is, after all, what we were created for. In Genesis 2, we read that “God planted a garden in Eden… and there he put man whom he had formed… to work it and keep it.” Man was created to work the garden, and to have fellowship with God in paradise. Because of the fall, this relationship with God was shattered, we were separated from God in our sin, and working the ground became hard and painful.
Ever since the fall, God has been working to return us to the garden. Through the prophets and the priests God revealed what it would take to be reconciled with Him and to enter the rest of His garden, and in the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord, the gate was opened so that all who believe in Him may enter. Christ came to make all things new, to restore us to our intended relationship with the Father, and to renew in us the work for which we were created.
So it is not unlikely to think that Jesus could have been mistaken for a gardener, for that is what we are all to be in Christ. As new creations, we are to return to the work of tending the garden of God’s kingdom. Pulling the weeds of worldly temptations that would choke the life of faith and godliness. Breaking the ground of the hardened hearts, but continually coming back to the sacrifice of Christ, a gift beyond all measure, a gift beyond our worth. And in the soften soil of the open heart, to plant the seeds of faith and trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation. This is the work of the gardener in the Kingdom of God.
So maybe Mary was right. She didn’t really recognize Jesus until he called her by name, then her eyes were opened and she saw Him as her risen Lord. But even before that moment, she still saw Jesus for who he was, the new gardener, come to bring new life to our hearts.