Norman Wirzba, author of Food and Faith: a theology of eating, reflects on Godly Gardening.
Besides being a practical, life-nurturing task, gardening is also always a spiritual activity. In it we attempt to make room for what is beautiful, delectable, and even holy. Every act of gardening thus presupposes and embodies a way of relating to creation and to God, a way that invariably invokes moral and theological decisions. Though membership in a garden is a given, how we will take our place in the membership is not. Our aim, theologically understood, must be to develop into Godly gardeners, gardeners who work harmoniously among the processes of life and death, and in their work witness to the life-creating presence of God in the world. This means that besides vegetables, flowers, and fruit, gardeners are themselves undergoing a spiritual cultivation into something beautiful and sympathetic and healthy. A caring, faithful, and worshipping humanity is one of the garden’s most important crops.
As with vegetable crops, we cannot assume that the cultivation of humanity will easily or always produce the desired fruit. Gardeners are not automatically rendered virtuous simply by being in a garden and performing gardening work. Gardeners can be petty, impatient, and destructive like anyone else. They can be arrogant and presumptuous, and so bear witness to themselves rather than the grace of God. This insight is well captured in an Israelite tradition that elevated wilderness life over life in the garden. Deuteronomy records God’s provision of a new land “flowing with milk and honey.” This land is not like the land of Egypt “where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the LORD your God looks after. The eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)
Though the gospels refer to Jesus as the shepherd who takes care of his flock, it is also helpful to think of Jesus as the gardener who came to clean up his garden and lead it into abundant and fruitful life. We have no direct proof that Jesus was a gardener in a professional sense. What is clear, however, is that he, like most people in the world’s history, had an intimate understanding of gardening realities. How else are we to account for the numerous horticultural images that are often the medium of his message and kingdom? Jesus advises his followers to put their trust in God rather than themselves, learn from the lilies of the field, and gratefully receive the gifts of God (Matthew 6:25-33)