The Constant Gardener
So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?
March 18, 2022, Words By: Ojii BaBa Madi, Image By: Anna Tarazevich
Everyone in the neighborhood called me Mr. Tim, but Jackie insisted on calling me Mr. Timmins. No matter what the others said, her weak but distinctive voice would boldly greet me, “Hi Mr. Timmins. I just need a dollar to get me something to eat.” This overly confident reassignment of my name did not offend me. She spoke it as if she had secret knowledge of my truer identity, assigning me a nom de guerre, a more consequential name for the rougher side of town where the warfare could be deadly.
I first encountered Jackie as a broken woman, quickly fading toward death. Her days of hope, pretense, schemes, and dreams had passed. The lust people used to feel for had long since been replaced with loathing. Standing now as a neighborhood shadow, her 80-pound frame gave notice that she would dissolve into dust if embraced.
Sin had done a job on Jackie. I’m not talking about the drugs and alcohol; those were now the closest things she could find to a balm for the soul. Like the fruitless fig tree in verse seven of today’s Gospel reading, Jackie lived within the reality of an imminent cutting down, and she knew it. She constantly cried, “Mr. Timmins, don’t let them bury me in Potter’s Field. Please don’t let them bury me in Potter’s Field.”
Clichés and truisms from within and without the church had failed Jackie. She found no credible evidence that “God is good all the time.” If he was, then why was she out in the summer’s heat pleading for a dollar to buy a can of beans and some corn bread mix.
“You can’t help who you love” had inspired serially noxious relationships, each stripping her of beauty, dignity, health, and soul. She had no idea what people meant by “Jesus can fix it.” Jackie kept no inventory of all the ways she had been broken and knew of no repair shop where Jesus was apparently fixing things. Jackie found no help in the discursive devices that aid us in avoiding the issues of our own brokenness and evading our calling to embrace this world’s sins and sinners. Maybe not this year, next year, or the year after, but she was surely heading fast toward a lonely death and a burial in Potter’s Field.
And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure.’ (Luke 13:8)
The Constant Gardener challenges us with seemingly opposed certainties: the realities of hope and waste, beauty and excrement, stench and life. It’s as if God’s creation has a sense of humor built into it — turning the most smelly and repulsive thing into the very medium that brings forth life, growth, survival and hope.
But it’s not a joke. After all, what is discipleship if not the community of the discarded, smelly refuse of this world’s systems, gathered to give life to people like Jackie?
This is the Good News! It’s not a spit shined, platitude spitting, eau de toilettefaith suitable for award shows and the evening news, but one thoroughly acquainted with the stenchy eau de manure messiness of Jackie’s life and of our own.
As Jesus, the Constant Gardener, moves toward the cross, he assures us of the realities of being imminently cut down. His death will be messy, foul, and filled with the stench of exposed flesh and seeping bodily fluids. Inline with the theme of gardens, he was treated as a piece of manure. Like Jackie, who died alone and was buried in Potter’s field, Jesus experienced a filthy, lonely death in a place of equal disgrace. He absorbed the world’s violence, suffering as the refuse of its systems.
But in his embrace of the cross, He also provided us with a new identity based on His love and forgiveness. When we move forward in that identity, it becomes the perfect medium for life, growth, survival, and hope because we no longer have to fear our stench. It there, but it doesn’t define us. Instead, it just becomes a part of the messy fellowship of grace and a reminder of the gardener’s ongoing work.
Dwelling Among Us
Do you tend to associate the “man” or the “gardener” as the stand-in for God in this parable? If God is the gardener, what does that say about God’s long-suffering and the desire of the Spirit to call forth new life?