Jesus the Good Gardener

by Norman Wirzba

When Jesus considered the lives of the people around him, he observed that many of them exist as seeds that never achieve their full potential. Although being surrounded by others, like to many seeds in a pile, they often live as if either closed off and alone, isolated and inert, or single and shunned. They may have a limited number of relationships but because the relationships are superficial and the set is small and unreliable, they can’t really grow into the fullness of their lives. The soil they are planted in, we might say, is mostly barren and denuded. As a result, they can’t fully explore who they are or develop their full potential because they lack the meaningful engagements with others that can inspire, instruct, support, and challenge them in their development. Worse yet would be for a seed to find its soil infertile and inhospitable, as when people are pushed to the margins or excluded from communities. Isolated people, as Jesus says in another context, are like exposed seeds that sit on a hardened path, easily consumed by birds, or like seeds that fall among rocky ground that does not support the growth of roots. They may germinate and grow briefly but because they lack nurturing soil, they are scorched by the sun and whither away (Matthew 13:4-6). 

One way to understand Jesus’s life and mission is to say he was about cultivating the fertile soil that supports vibrant growth and that bears good fruit (Matthew 13:23). This agrarian characterization places Jesus in continuity with the gardening God first encountered in Genesis 2, and it helps us understand his fondness for horticultural imagery and practice as ways of making sense of life. Jesus may not have known about the billions of microorganisms in the soil, or the details of the complex dynamism of their life together, but he would have known that good soil is fundamentally a hospitable medium that welcomes a seed, and then provides the nurturing conditions for it to grow and maximally become itself. He would have known something of Albert Howard’s “Law of Return,” which instructs people to nurture the soil that nurtures them.1 Jesus’s mission was about modelling and extending in human contexts this caring way of being. This, in part, is why his ministries often centered on feeding, healing, and reconciling people. 

If Jesus was focused on cultivating the communal contexts for life’s flourishing, then it was also important that he expose these contexts that subvert it. To do that, he needed to address behaviors like jealousy, greed, arrogance, and fear that undermine togetherness, and he needed to confront the inhospitable environments that ignore, condemn, segregate, or violate certain groups of people. Jesus regularly ministered to people like lepers, adulterers, and prostitutes that had been pushed to the margins of society.2 He regularly engaged with those who were ostracized because they were either of the wrong class, gender, or ethnic group. And he befriended abandoned people who were deemed to be of little or no worth, people like widows, children, and the poor. Jesus believed that people should not be isolated and lonely.3 They thrive best in communal contexts where mutual regard and mutual nurture are defining modalities, for without them, people can’t germinate and grow. As Willie Jennings recently argued, a fundamental priority in Christian formation must be to create the social, institutional, and material contexts in which people truly belong. The destructive, imperial delusion that individuals are self-sufficient and self-making needs to be resisted and properly named as a distortion of the life God desires for people. 

Our educational settings need to be aimed at forming erotic souls that are being cultivated in an art that joins to the bone and that announces a contrast life aimed at communion. By communion, I mean not with people in general but with the people that comprise the place of one’s concrete living and the places (the landscapes, animals, and the built environments) that constitute the actual conditions of one’s life.4 

1 Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006 [first published in 1947]). Considered to be one of the pioneers of the modern organic movement, it is important to remember that Howard learned many of his insights and methods about soil health from Indian peasants who practiced extensive composting practices.

2 In The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000) Virgilio Elizondo shows how Jesus upended the categorizing of humans into hierarchies that were typical of his day. Jesus rejected the social systems of exclusion and rejection by welcoming everyone into communion with him, especially those pushed to the margins or deemed as outcasts. Jesus’s instruction to his followers in Luke 14:7-14 to invite to a dinner “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (13) is one example of serving others without a desire for self-advancement.

3 It is important to distinguish an alienated, fragmented, or lonely life from a life of solitude. The former, to put it (too) simply, reflects a life in which nurturing entanglements with others have been cut, whereas the latter reflects a form of separation from others so as to better develop the skills of attentive and careful engagement with them. Solitude, in other words, creates a space and time to cultivate the disciplines and contemplative practices that enable people to develop a more patient, honest, and compassionate way of being in the world. For an excellent description of some of these practices, see Douglas E. Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). For an exploration of solitude in the cultivation of creativity, see Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020).

4 After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 13-14.

Norman Wirzba is Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology & Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute of Ethics at Duke University. His research and teaching interests are at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. Raised on a farm in Southern Alberta, Norman went on to study history at the University of Lethbridge, theology at Yale University Divinity School, and philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Since then he has taught at Saint Thomas More College/University of Saskatchewan, Georgetown College (KY), and Duke University Divinity School. He’s the father of four children and is married to Gretchen Ziegenhals. He likes to bake, cook and make things with wood. He also enjoys playing the guitar. He used to be a good athlete! He enjoys being outdoors and spending time with his family and friends. He tries to grow some food.

This article is excerpted from In This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Sacred World (Cambridge University Press, 2021) by the author’s permission.