Connections 04.16.2017: The Gardener

John 20:1-18

When the ordinary meets the extraordinary, chances are pretty good that the ordinary will try to cut the extraordinary down to size.

It’s understandable. After all, we’re limited by our experience, and our experience is mighty limited. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing the way it is because we can’t see past the way it must be.

So Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. She thought the resurrected Lord was the cemetery groundskeeper.

I don’t think Jesus was wearing a big straw hat and holding hedge clippers, so something else must have been going on.

Now, lest I appear to be criticizing Mary, let me make a few observations.

First, Mary was there. She was there alone. No other followers of Jesus were there with her. She was the first one at the empty tomb. When she saw it, she went to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They came to the empty tomb. They even went inside it. And then we read one of the most amazing verses in the Bible: “The disciples returned to their homes.”

I imagine it going something like this:

The Beloved Disciple to Peter: “Well, Jesus isn’t in the tomb. What are you going to do now?”
Peter: “I reckon I’ll go home.”
The Beloved Disciple: “Yeah, me too.”


The first two words of the next verse are amazing too, but in a better way: “But Mary …”.

Mary stayed. Mary was still there.

Second, because Mary was there, she was the first person to encounter the resurrected Jesus. She was also the first person to engage in conversation with him. She doesn’t know she’s talking to Jesus, but she is.

Third, Mary was upset. She was grieving. She was crying. Who knows how different Jesus looked in his resurrected state? But even if he were recognizable, she would have had a hard time seeing him through her tears.

Fourth, Jesus is dead. If he’s not in his tomb, Mary figures, someone has taken his body. That’s just the way it must be.

So when Mary sees Jesus, she thinks he is the gardener. In my imagination, Jesus smiles at her misidentification. Maybe he smiles at ours, too.

In that moment—standing near the empty tomb, shrouded in grief—Mary is, as she is at every other moment of her life, who she is. She knows what she knows. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She has experience and inexperience. Her life has prepared her to see things from a certain point of view and to understand situations in particular ways.

It’s that way with us too. The church has been celebrating Easter for two millennia. Many of us have heard about the resurrected Jesus all our lives. It may be, though, that he’s become as ordinary as a gardener to us. Maybe we’ve tried to reduce him to something we can understand—or manage.

Mary recognized Jesus when he spoke her name. She recognized him because he recognized her. Her experience and perspective began to broaden because of her relationship with the risen Jesus. From now on, she will encounter and understand everything that happens in light of her relationship with the resurrected Lord. From now on, she will interpret herself in light of that relationship.

When Mary realized who “the gardener” really was, she was on her to way to becoming who she really was.

We can’t help but start where we are. We can’t help but be who we are.

But who can say where we’ll end up and who we’ll end up being if we learn to recognize Jesus for who he is and if we come to see ourselves, and everything else, in light of our relationship with the resurrected Lord?


1. What else may have rendered Mary unable to recognize Jesus?
2. Why do you think Peter and the Beloved disciple went home after they entered the empty tomb?
3. Why do you think Jesus didn’t want Mary to hold onto him?
4. None of the Gospels describe actual resurrection of Jesus. Why do you think they didn’t?
5. What is the relationship between believing and understanding (vv. 8-9)?

Reference Shelf

Verses 3-10 function apologetically in several ways in the Johannine plot. First, they confirm the testimony of vv. 1-2. According to Jewish law, two witnesses are needed to authenticate the fact of the empty tomb (Deut 19:15; John 5:31-32). In the ancient Jewish world, moreover, the testimony of a woman is less highly regarded than that of a man (Lk 24:11). So, as in Luke 24:24, 12, John 20:1-10 pieces the discovery of the empty tomb by men alongside its discovery by a woman or women. The one confirms the testimony of the other.

Second, the position of the grave cloths refutes the possibility, verbalized three times in the context by Mary Magdalene (vv. 2, 13, 15), that Jesus’ body has been stolen. The charge that Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb, either by his disciples or by a gardener, is echoed in other early Christian sources (e.g., Matt 27:64; 28:13-15; Gospel of Peter 5:30; Justin, Trypho 108:2; Tertullian, Shows 30; Apology 23). Such a claim is not surprising, since robbing tombs was common enough to be part of an ancient novel’s plot (in Chariton’s novel, Callirhoe, presumed dead, awakes in the tomb and is carried off by grave robbers, beginning a painful separation for her and her lover, Chaereas) and for official action to be taken against it. For example, a decree of the emperor Claudius (AD 41–54), a copy of which was found at Nazareth, orders capital punishment for those destroying tombs, removing bodies, or displacing the sealing stones (a translation of the text may be found in C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents [New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961], 15). If anyone had removed the body of Jesus, would he have stripped it first? Would he have left the cloths lying in an orderly fashion on the floor? Would he have taken the time to roll up the napkin and put it in a place by itself? Would he have left the costly cloths (so John Chrysostom, Sermons on John 85:4)? Jesus’ body is absent from the tomb, but not because it has been stolen.

Third, the difference between the grave cloths in the case of Lazarus (11:44: “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’”) and those of Jesus (20:6-7: the body is gone and the linen cloths are lying there and the napkin is rolled up in a place by itself) speak about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. His situation is not that of a resuscitated corpse, as is the case of Lazarus. It is something else entirely:

The explanation that best fits the Johannine view of the mode of resurrection is that the body had been swiftly dematerialized, leaving the swathing clothes as they were, with the cloth that had been wrapped around the head still lying on the slightly raised ledge where the head had been laid, and keeping its annular shape. (W. F. Howard, “John,” IB 8:790)

The risen Jesus’ body passes through his grave clothes just as it does through walls or doors (20:19, 26). His corpse has not been resuscitated; he has been transformed from mortal into immortal (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-55).

In addition to the apologetic points made by vv. 3-10, there is another. The beloved disciple sees the empty tomb and believes. He comes to faith without seeing Jesus himself. He, thereby, becomes not only a witness to the authenticity of the tradition of the empty tomb (21:24) but also a prototype of faith for those of subsequent generations who will believe without themselves seeing the risen Jesus (20:29b).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 258-59.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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