GARDENING is never only about gardens. If we try to help a plant grow, we are changing the course of nature (for the better, we hope). Whenever we do so, we are imitating God’s action in creating the world, setting birth and growth in motion. We are aligning ourselves with his purposes, and even with his nature.
Of course, we may also be making a living; or expressing ourselves; or keeping up with the Joneses. There is no single point of view when it comes to growing things. One person’s exotic orchid is another’s monstrous triffid; one person’s wild-flower paradise is another’s weedy wilderness.
In the tough new world that follows the Fall, cultivating land is a battle against the hostility of nature (Genesis 3.17-19). It takes unrelenting, back-breaking effort and the painstaking acquisition of skill and knowledge. The curse of Adam is how the Bible explains why the earth is no longer yielding food in plenty of its own accord, as it once did in the Garden of Eden. This is not only a Judaeo-Christian insight into creation; it is shared with other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean.
It is hardly surprising that Bible readings are full of references to the natural environment when that environment was, for most people, the chief source of food for survival, and the chief means of generating income. Oil from the olive tree was a staple of ancient economics, used for everything from lighting to healing. Wars were fought over territory, because land for growing corn was the most valuable resource for food.
What is more surprising is the way in which these readings speak about trees. The cedars of Lebanon are not food plants: Ezekiel uses them (2.13) as a symbol of pride, alongside oak trees, mountains, and towers built by human hands. The psalmist takes another tack, describing their great bulk and the extensive shade that they provide as making them symbolic of the righteous person, growing strong and flourishing. Trees, like people, grow upright, and, with a little imagination, can suggest the human form. Strong growth, which leads to fruitfulness, is virtually synonymous with goodness.
When Jesus speaks in parables about a mustard plant, he uses it to explain the idea of fast growth from a tiny seed — a strong contrast with the cutting from a cedar, which takes a long time to reach full maturity. Botanists can speculate about which member of the mustard family is meant, but all of us can meditate on the mystery by which one thing becomes something else. After Jesus, grains of wheat metamorphosing into bread became a potent symbol of the resurrection for Paul, and those who learned Christ from him (1 Corinthians 15.36-38).
Equally important is the way in which such parables express the idea of purpose. It is not random chance or chaos that makes a fallen grain germinate and grow into a plant. The seed has a direction to its existence — we might even call it a teleology — as have human beings. Our lives move in a direction, either towards God or (seemingly) away from him, but, either way, we are going somewhere.
Gardening is one of many ways in which human beings align themselves with the nature of their Creator. Having children is another. There are good and bad ways to garden and to parent; but being a gardener or a parent can help us to understand God through imitating him.
This is no reason to become arrogant. Everything that we create is merely a pale imitation of his creation. Paul tells us that we are not just God’s creation, but his new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17): that we who come to be “in Christ” really do begin again, as fresh and new as everything else made in the first six days, which were so important to the early teachers of Christianity that they gave them a special label, the “Hexahemeron”. This new identity bestows fresh insight: the Jesus who was a beloved friend of those first disciples has come to be known in a greater and better way (2 Corinthians 5.16), as the Christ who redeems the world.
The “love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5.14) urges us on to share him with others. That includes our love for him, and his for us; for the Greek, in providential ambiguity, encompasses both.