John 20:15 Jesus said to [Mary], “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Because she thought he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.”
‘She thought he was the gardener’ – This supposition has provided rich pickings for preachers who like to domesticate the biblical text while allowing free reign to their own imaginations. [For some examples, see here, and here]
In a sermon on this passage, the Very Reverend Sam G. Candler gravely suggests that Mary supposed him to be the gardener ‘because Jesus is a gardener!’ The preacher elaborates: ‘ It is Jesus who is the one tilling and turning soil in our lives…Jesus is the one who plants new seeds in our lives…And Jesus weeds, too…Jesus is the also the one who cuts back dead limbs.’ As delighted as we may be in the resurrection of Jesus, this ‘pales in comparison with the Master Gardener, Jesus the Gardener, who is even more delighted with the resurrection that occurs in each of the plants in his garden.’
I hope it goes without saying that such imaginings have nothing whatsoever to do with the text they purport to be based on. They would be pretty harmless if they did not stand so completely in the way of the message of the text itself.
The clear meaning of the text, of course, is not that she was correct, but that she was mistaken in her supposition that he was the gardener. [I have to add that even the esteemed C.H. Spurgeon, while recognising that Mary was mistaken in her supposition, nevertheless based an entire sermon on the premise that the Lord Jesus is a ‘gardener’. And while he was no denier of the resurrection, he failed to speak of that most central of all gospel truths throughout the sermon].
Having got that little rant out of our hair, we can suggest some possible reasons why Mary (mistakenly) ‘thought he was the gardener:-
- because seeing a living Jesus was the last thing that she was expecting (she has already convinced herself that Jesus’ body has been removed and reburied)
- because a gardener would be a likely person to see there
- because it was early in the morning, and the features of the person she saw were not yet fully visible
- because she was been crying, and was blinded by her tears
- because Jesus’ appearance had changed somewhat after his resurrection (obviously his body did not function in exactly the same way after his resurrection, and may not have looked exactly the same either)