God the Gardener (Part I)

(An Excerpt from Parables Plus, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(Matthew 13:24-30, Genesis 1-3)

Though Jesus wasn’t a farmer, the first three of His parables from Matthew 13 are agricultural stories.  From His location in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, did He look around at the fields surrounding the lake and draw His inspiration for these three stories by spotting a farmer at work?  I can imagine Him gesturing toward a man scattering seed and speaking His famous words about a sower, his seed, and four different kinds of soils.  In a natural progression of ideas, perhaps his next two parables followed on the heels of the first.

Whatever sparked the ideas for His stories in the moment of their telling, I think it would be getting hold of the wrong end of the stick to think of His parables as Jesus reading into nature all kinds of meanings that He could use to make greater-reality, spiritual applications.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  Nature itself seems to me to be a kind of parable, endowed from the start by its Creator with all manner of spiritual applications.  The greater-reality meanings don’t need to be read into our physical world.  They only need to be read out of it.  They are already purposefully embedded into it.

Jesus’ illustration comparing His own flesh and blood to bread and wine is a perfect example.  Have you ever stopped to think, even if you happen to be vegetarian, that the only thing keeping you alive is death?  The grain and the grapes that become bread and wine die and are crushed in order for us to live.  Eating!  Such a simple act.  But what an awesome picture of His greater realities God built into our natural realities!

That illustration ties in very directly to what I want to talk about today: God as a Gardener in Genesis 2.

Have you ever wondered why  the only prohibition God gave the first humans was a prohibition regarding their food source?

The main reason I can see is that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were pictures of God’s greater realities.

We are highly dependent creatures, and God created us as such for a reason.  I  believe our physical dependencies were given to us to demonstrate for us our spiritual dependencies.  One of our main physical dependencies is on food.  Pretty hard to live without it.  Food, in a physical sense, is our life-source.  God gave the first humans a choice between a dependency on Him (pictured by the fruit of the tree of life) or an independence from Him (the fruit of the tree from which He told them not to eat).  The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil became the fruit of death, however, as God warned Adam and Eve it would.  There is no life-source apart from Him.  Independence from Him can only mean death, destruction, and despair.  We can choose independence from Him because God is the God of freedom (the reason He gave the first humans a choice to make), but He warns us that there can be no real life outside the one He offers.

“The year’s at the spring…” and yesterday was garden planting day for me.  As I was turning and raking the soil and dropping my seeds into their rows, I was thinking about the reasons we garden.  People grow gardens for only two reasons that I can think of: for food or for beauty (or for both).

Then, I remembered that God grew a garden once.  It’s nearly the first thing we learn about God, right after the fact that He was the original Creator.  He was the original Gardener.

Also as I was gardening, I was also flipping my mind’s pages to Matthew 13, a passage I’ve been studying lately.   It occurred to me that Jesus’ simple little story in that chapter about the wheat and the weeds portrays a very big picture about the greater realities.  It takes us back to the beginning and lets us see into the unseen world of the spiritual battle that started from the creation of humanity and will continue till the end of time.  Jesus’ tiny story is an epic encapsulated into a nutshell.  For today, I’d like to focus on the aspect of the epic that reveals God as a gardener.

I said earlier that Jesus was no farmer, but that’s not strictly true.  He was there in the beginning with and in His Father.   All things were created through Him (John 1:1-3).  If His Father is a gardener, so is He.  From Matthew 13, we learn that “the Son of Man” is not only a gardener; He is a farmer.  He sowed the good seed in the field of the world.  In a “greater-reality” sense, He is very much a farmer — the original farmer.  The part of Jesus’ little, epic story that I’d like to zoom in on today is found in two words:  “good seed.”

I’ve said that the only two purposes I can think of for growing a garden are for food and for beauty.  If you check out Genesis 2:9, you’ll see that those were the two purposes God had for growing His garden.  I would assume He grew that first, literal garden in Eden for food and for beauty for the sake of the first humans, but in a bigger sense, what about the “good seed” He sowed in the field of the world?

In Matthew 13:38, the “good seed” are the sons (and daughters) of “the kingdom.”

In other words, we are God’s garden — all those of us who have chosen Him as our God.  The One in charge.  The King.  My King.

He once planted a garden in order to feed and to delight His creation — those creations of His that He planted in the field of the world.  But why did He plant His metaphorical “garden”?  Why did He create those human “stalks of wheat”?  I’ve often asked myself, “Why would God create?  Why would God create us?  What did He get out of it?”

I love the answer Revelation 4:11 gives us from the King James Version:  “…for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”  I see the truth of it from Genesis 1 as God looks at the riot of life, of colour, of taste, and aroma He has just created and announces that it’s good.  In fact, everything He made was very good.  He did indeed plant “good seed” in the field of His world.  And it appears that one reason He decided to plant Himself the garden we call earth was for beauty — to delight His own heart.

But what about the food aspect of growing a garden?  He doesn’t need food.  God created us dependent on food so we would recognize our dependency.  And hopefully, so we would choose to recognize our dependency on Him.  But He’s not dependent, is He?

I believe His self-sufficiency to be a fact.  He has no needs that are not met within Himself.  Yet Jesus makes an astonishing statement in John 4.  In John 4:34, Jesus casually announces that His food is to do the will of Him who sent Him and to finish His work.

It struck me, reading this verse, that God is self-sufficient within Himself because He is all-relational within Himself.  He is not independent within Himself.  The Son is not independent of the Father, nor is the Father independent of the Son, nor is the Holy Spirit independent of either.

It sheds new light for me on the reason God made us to be dependent on Him.  Independence is the anti-relationship, and God created us for relationship.  In all the delight He took in His creation, there was one instance when He stopped and declared that something was not good.  And that something was the solitude of man.  It wasn’t good that man should be alone.  We were created dependent because we were created for relationship.  We were created for relationship because God is all-relational.

But here’s the truly astonishing thing I’d like to point out from John 4.  Jesus told His disciples that doing His Father’s will was His food.  And if we look back over John 4, we’ll discover that Jesus, immediately prior to His statement about His food, had been partaking in some dialogue with a Samaritan woman He had just met at a well.  Being tired and thirsty, He struck up a conversation by asking the woman for a drink (having made Himself subject to the same physical dependencies to which His creatures are subject).  And from there, the conversation turned spiritual and ended with the woman and many in her village coming to recognize Him as Messiah — and in so doing, to enter into true relationship with their Creator.

That result, reading between the lines, was Jesus’ food: the will of the One who sent Him and the work He had to finish (through His death on a Roman cross).  It satisfied His hunger to satisfy the spiritual hunger of one of His much-loved creations.

Then, in the next verses of John 4 after His description of His food, Jesus goes on to talk about the reaping of human crops and the joy and satisfaction that harvest brings.  He is the original farmer who sowed His good seed in the world.  Why?  For beauty, surely, but also to satisfy His hunger.  And, incredibly, He hungers for relationship.  With US!  That’s the God we serve!

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God the Gardener (Part II)

(An Excerpt from Parables Plus, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(Matthew 13:24-30, Genesis 1-3)

A day or two ago, preparing to plant my garden, I pulled some quack grass that had escaped the teeth of the rototiller and marvelled over its hardiness.  Moments later, transferring my somewhat sad-looking, baby tomato plants from their bedding-plant containers to their new home in the garden, I wondered if they would survive the transition and thought, “Something’s wrong with this picture.”

Something is out of kilter in our world.  Something’s disjointed in our reality when the edible things, the useful things, the desirable things, require enormous amounts of my time, energy, and attention just to survive and the things that serve no apparent purpose require enormous amounts of my time, energy, and attention just to control.  And control is all I’ll ever manage.  The weeds are unstoppable.  By me, that is.

My thoughts quickly moved from literal wheat and weeds to the non-literal kind Jesus talked about in His parable of the wheat and weeds in Matthew 13:24-30.  Why is it that a parent can spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and attention trying to raise good kids, but one wrong kind of friend can undo in a month what took years to instill?  Why are bad habits so quick to form and so slow to break?  Why does junk food taste better than Brussels sprouts and broccoli?  Why is bad so much easier for us than good?  Why does everything tend to run downhill on our earth and only through the greatest efforts of time, energy, and attention can anything be pushed inch-by-grueling-inch upwards?

An interesting note on Jesus’ parable: the weeds in the garden that represents the world in His story were planted.  By “an enemy.”

As I was planting my garden, pulling quack grass, and thinking about wheat and weeds, I said to myself, “Anyone reading His story about the wheat and the weeds would know that Jesus was no gardener.  Weeds need no planting.”  I think it was at that point when I climbed aboard the train of thought as Jesus as a gardener — the original Gardener.  Unlike the rest of us, He got to experience gardening before that “running downhill” tendency was in place.  In fact, His mini-epic in Matthew 13:24-30 shows us how that tendency was set in place.  But when He planted His original garden, there was no “weed problem.”

The weeds (even literal ones, in fact) are no accidents.  Originally, they didn’t “just happen.”  They were planted.  Jesus’ story reminds us of that truth.  And Genesis 3 gives us the details of that event.

From Jesus’ second parable in Matthew 13, the Son of Man planted His “good seed” in the field of the world. And in that act, I see a picture of God (Father, Son, and Spirit) creating humanity out of a heart of love and out of a desire to delight in relationship with us.  But relationship requires freedom.  There can be no love without choice.  We can see it from our own experience of love.  So God gave the first humans a choice.

Also, all good things are good things because ultimately they reflect the character of God in some way.  Freedom is a good thing because God is free.  He makes choices.  He does as He wills to do.  Our freedom is a good thing (though misused like many — okay, all — of God’s good gifts to us) because it is an extension of His freedom.  Even His enemy (before he became the enemy) and all his cohorts were free to choose.  God does not believe in slavery.  His servants must serve Him freely.

God believes so strongly in freedom He gave dominion over the earth into the hands of its first human inhabitants in Genesis 1:26.  And in a sense (in the same sense that a democracy is a rule “by the people” because of their freedom to choose their government) to every one of their descendants since.

But from Genesis 3, Planet Earth’s first governors chose to turn themselves and the earth over to the control of a master who emphatically does not believe in freedom.

Romans 6:16 informs us that whom we choose to obey, we make our master.  The first humans chose to serve Satan by doing what he wanted them to do.  God gave the first humans that ability to so choose.  He gave them freedom.  They could do with it as they chose.  He had made mankind the masters of the earth.  They made Satan the master of the masters of the earth.  And so we now find ourselves in a state of existence where the enemy is “the ruler of this world.”  It’s a title Jesus used repeatedly for him (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

But what about us?  Why should Adam and Eve’s wrong choice affect every one of us?

God still believes in freedom.  We’re still all given a vote as to whom we want to rule our world.  The problem is that we all start out in a world under the immediate control of “the ruler of this world” who also happens to be a very active and clever deceiver, and it doesn’t take long before every single one of us casts a vote for the present, reigning power.

Isn’t it ironic that the gift God has given every one of us is the very thing His enemy dangles before us as bait after convincing us it’s the very thing God is holding back from us?  Satan’s campaign promise is that his way is the only way to freedom, and despite the massive weight of evidence to the contrary, we believe him.

“Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” was how the serpent opened his conversation with the woman in Genesis 3:1.  Do you see it?  How shrewdly the serpent gave the wrong slant to the choice God had given the first humans!  To keep the woman from being reminded of all the trees she was free to eat from, he put the focus on the one prohibition she was given.  And then, he led her to believe that because she was given one prohibition, she wasn’t free.

The complete reverse is the fact.  Without the prohibition, there would have been no true freedom for the first couple.  Freedom is synonymous with the ability to make choices, and as far as I can tell, God instituted a prohibition for the sake of giving Adam and Eve a choice.  But the serpent leads us to believe that if there’s any prohibition at all, defying that prohibition will be the only act of freedom.

His next suggestion to the woman was more blatant.

In Genesis 3:5, the serpent promised the woman she could become like God through disobeying His one command.

There is only One who is completely free — who can do whatever He chooses.  That One is the Lord God Almighty.  His enemy made his bid to serve only himself, and he has convinced every human since that serving oneself is the only freedom—that we can be “like God” and be completely and utterly free.  The fact of the case is that self-service is impossible for us.   God made us as dependent creatures, and He did it for a reason.  We were not created for complete independence.

While whispering in our ears about the freedom he’s offering us, the father of all lies doesn’t bother to mention the tiny detail that a rejection of God’s rule in our lives makes His enemy our master.  And here’s the result of making Satan our master:  slavery.  God is the God of freedom.  He believes in giving us choices.  Satan believes in stripping us of them.

And this brings us back to the weeds in my garden and in Matthew 13 and all that’s wrong with our world.  Why should servitude to Satan mean that everything tends to run downhill?  Why must the world be out of kilter and require a great deal of hard labour just to survive in it?  Because God is about freedom.  Satan is about slavery.  And God allows us to see what the world looks like under the control of our hard taskmaster.

The first humans could have had no real idea what they were choosing.  God had warned them about the death that would follow the overthrow of His light yoke of free servitude.  But could the word “death” have any meaning for them?

I’ve asked myself, “Why wouldn’t God try harder to let them know what they were choosing?  Why wouldn’t He show them somehow, help them make an informed choice?”

And then I try to imagine what else He could have done to warn them.  Played a sort of “home movie” for them of our world as it is now?  Still, till a person experiences a reality for himself, that reality doesn’t become real to him.  I’ve watched a lot of movies.  None of them were real to me.  Adam and Eve could not, I believe, know — really know — the difference between good and evil without tasting of the evil.  Anything else would have been just hearing words — just watching someone else’s home movies.

Then, there’s the point that Adam and Eve chose to believe the serpent and disbelieve God.  God could have talked Himself blue in the face about the consequences of choosing to listen to the serpent, but once the choice was made to disbelieve God’s words, would it have made any difference how many words God had used or how many other methods He may have used in an attempt to show His creatures the folly of disobedience?

I think God did the only thing He could do.  He gave the first humans a real freedom with real consequences.  Adam and Eve may not have known exactly what they were choosing, but every one of their children should.  We see that “running downhill” effect.  We see that our world is out of kilter.  We feel the misery of it.  Then, God tells us in His Book the reasons for it.  Shouldn’t we all decide to cast our votes against making God’s enemy the ruler of our world?  That is the effect the hardship and misery in our world should have.  And praise God, it often does.  He uses the disjointedness of our world more than any other means, I believe, to draw people, sick to death of their enslaved state, back to Himself.  He can even use the enemy’s work of weed-planting in His own work of wheat-planting.  He’s just like that!

The weeds in my garden are a little picture that the earth is dying.  They are part of that “running downhill” tendency of which death is the sum total.  They were a sign to Adam, the gardener, that the earth was beginning to die and that one day He, too, would die.  The verses of Gen. 3:17-19 are all about (what I, in a non-scientific usage, call) the second law of thermodynamics.  All part of allowing us to see what the consequences of making Satan our master look like.

It strikes me that Jesus, the original Gardener, as He recounted the incident of His enemy planting weeds in the field of the world, may have been reliving the moment in His mind when Adam was informed that thorns and thistles would overtake the ground.  Was that moment His inspiration for His little story about some wheat and weeds?  I don’t know, of course, but over and over, I see the spiritual truths God instilled into the parable that we call nature.