Wednesday
Jan042012

Looks Like the Gardener  

Throughout his earthly ministry and ever since, Jesus of Nazareth is mistaken for many other characters.

To some, he had the potential to be the leader of a military revolt against the despised Roman occupiers of Judea. To others, he might have been a resurrected version of some of Israel’s greatest heroes: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:13-14 ESV).

Even today, Jesus is frequently misidentified on both personal and doctrinal fronts. There are those who label him a good teacher and great man, but who balk at his claims to be the Messiah. Others embrace him as the prophesied savior, but emasculate the harder things that he taught, so to make faith more palatable to recalcitrant sinners. Sadly, Jesus Christ is so chronologically removed from modern minds that his entire character becomes subject to revision and abuse. 

The most egregious case of mistaken identity involving Jesus was probably a short time after his resurrection. As Mary Magdalene wept outside his surprisingly opened tomb, she peered inside to find something she could not have anticipated. It was not the mutilated body of her Lord, or even the emptiness of a raided grave. Rather, two angels inquired as to the reason she was weeping – after all, they knew the greatest miracle of all had just occurred, and the savior had risen. Turning, Mary saw another figure, who asked why she still wept. “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).

What remarkable zeal! Mary was prepared to reclaim the dead body of Jesus, to inter it somewhere more private, more secure, perhaps. Without considering the frailty of her feminine frame, she offered to do Jesus one last honor. Her zeal, while completely admirable, was forgivably misguided, however – Jesus did not require reburial. In fact, it was he who stood before her, in resurrected glory, and inquired about her mood.

Her ignorance is natural – she had not yet harmonized Christ’s resurrection prophecies with the empty tomb before her. Her ignorance led her to offer an unnecessary service, yet when Jesus identified himself verbally, her ignorance was chased away and she was equipped to honor him properly. Jesus said but one word – he called her by name – and when he did that, she recognized the voice of the Lord and subjected herself to him. Calling him “Teacher,” Mary complied with his immediate command by going to his disciples and announcing what she had witnessed – “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

Ignorance is sometimes understandable and even forgivable. Everyone is ignorant of some secular subject, perhaps a foreign language, which they have never studied. Most Americans are not expected to speak fluently the Lithuanian language or even ruminate about arcane mathematical theorems. Just the same, those who are new to the Bible, to the New Testament, to the church of Christ, cannot be expected to be instantly conversant with every detail of doctrine and history. They are, perhaps, babes in Christ, and dependent upon the milk of the word to strengthen their understanding and expand their insight. They deserve patience, instruction, and gentle correction, that strives to edify and not to discourage (First Peter 2:1-3). 

They key in the transition from forgivable ignorance to enlightenment is the same as it was at Christ’s tomb – words. Jesus identified himself with a word, one that was recognizable to a genuine disciple who sincerely revered him and craved subjection to his will. Mary Magdalene was driven to be of service (see also Luke 5:5).

Today, ignorance evaporates where the same kind of seekers hunger and thirst after God’s will, can be satisfied with nothing less, and are so driven to serve that they will forfeit any belief or tradition that is disproven. 

There are times when the most zealous believers are also the least indoctrinated. Their zeal, like Mary’s, leads them to propose great things, but sometimes without a full understanding of the implications or authority. Many such programs and policies appear grand and wholesome, but on closer inspection, are unauthorized or somehow misguided. 

Paul complained that many of his Jewish countrymen possessed a great zeal for God, that it was not the exclusive property of Christians, but that they operated according to such ignorance that they could not succeed in the end (Romans 10:1-4). Being ignorant of God’s plan, they sought to establish and execute their own, and that act of ignorant, well-intended rebellion was enough to spoil the goodness of their plans.

Ignorance, while expectable in the very young and the novice, is not a condition to preserve against enlightenment and education. Ignorance is not relieved simply by obeying the opinions of a popular teacher or a major creed, but is overwhelmed by a healthy appetite for God’s word itself, “for man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). 

Before she heard him speak, Mary presumed that the shadowy figure before her was the gardener. With a word, Jesus persuaded her of his deity and enlisted her service in communicating with his disciples. Mary was willing to follow, but unwilling to remain ignorant. When knowledge was made hers, Mary was also accountable for what she did next. Persistent disbelief, rejection of the resurrection, refusal to be a messenger would have constituted great rebellion. Likewise, when one encounters Jesus, his doctrine, and his character in the New Testament, that one is accountable for applying that understanding. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48 ESV).