The Parable of the Rock Garden

by Jack Crabtree


It has become a Friends’ Night tradition that I say a few words about the purpose of the Study Center and the reason for its existence. That is, of course, a very difficult task—especially in the few minutes available. While much could be said, I shall limit my remarks to one aspect of what McKenzie Study Center is and why we exist.

I will begin my remarks by reading a little-known account of an event in the life of Jesus. Now I don’t know what the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have to say about this account; but I, for one, have serious doubts. I can’t quite put my finger on what, but something about this account just doesn’t ring true. But while I don’t believe it is an authentic account, I think it has something to teach us nonetheless. Here is the account:

And on the next day, Jesus was sipping some coffee at the Fifth Street Market when a minister came up to Him and said, “I am a churchman. I have been a churchman all my life. I love the church with all my soul, and I want more than anything else to see it prosper. Jesus, you mustn’t teach the things that you do. You are upsetting the people in our churches. It is of utmost importance that we love each other and care for each other and get along with one another. When people listen to you they start to criticize and condemn and make pests of themselves. Please stop. For the sake of the church, stop.”

Jesus, after sipping his coffee, looked upon the man with compassion and said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. If anyone loves the church with all his soul, the love of the Father is not in him. If anyone loves the Father, he will love the church, and he will correct it like a brother corrects his own brother.”

The minister understood in his heart what Jesus was saying, so he grew very angry and said to him, “Jesus, you are an evil and arrogant man. Anyone who opposes the church of the living God is an enemy of God.”

After he had gone, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Verily I say unto you, the Son of Man is not for everybody. He gets on some people’s nerves.”

Then he told them this parable to teach them that there will always be those who see love to be arrogance and obedience to be a turning away from God:

 

• • •

 

Once upon a time there was a kindly old man who planted a rock garden. He took great pride in the rock garden and planted it with all sorts of beautiful, wonderful, rare, and exotic plants. It was his pride and joy. And not only his; it was the pride and joy of the whole family.

One day the old man died. He left his home and property, including the rock garden, to his two unmarried daughters. The two women lived in the house and cared for the rock garden; it was all they had in life. Whenever friends or neighbors came over, the two women would always say, “Have you seen the rock garden our father made? Isn’t it just perfect? That’s our pride and joy, our life. The rock garden is our life.”

Meanwhile, there was a young boy who lived in the neighborhood. The boy had a passion for plants. He spent his days wandering through the fields around his village, studying all the different species of plants he could find. When he learned to read, his parents bought him a plant encyclopedia. It told of all the different plant species in his part of the country. Day after day, he poured over this encyclopedia until he had memorized every last fact in the book. And he searched the countryside and trained himself to recognize every different species of plant in every different stage of its growth cycle.

Over the years the two daughters turned into two little old ladies. As their vitality waned, the two little old ladies found it more and more difficult to tend the rock garden. The weeds went unpulled, the plants went without water and nutrients, and the garden began to deteriorate. But the sisters, whose eyesight was beginning to fail, would look out the window at their father’s rock garden and say sincerely to one another, “See the rock garden our father made? Isn’t it just perfect? That’s our pride and joy, our life. The rock garden is our life.” And if a friend would dare to suggest that their rock garden looked a little shabby, the two sisters would take offense: “It is not shabby. Nothing our father ever did was shabby. It was perfect. And anyone who knew anything about plants would know that it was the best rock garden in the world.”

In time, the little old ladies became more and more secluded. The shades were pulled, the house was closed up tight, and no more did the ladies go to the window to gaze upon their father’s rock garden. But still, they sat and rocked and said to one another, “Isn’t the rock garden our father made wonderful? Isn’t it just perfect? That’s our pride and joy, our life. The rock garden is our life.”

Over the years the young boy grew into a young adult. He decided to pursue his life-long passion by becoming a gardener. One day, as he was passing the rock garden, he stopped to study it. He saw dormant seeds from rare and exotic plants. He saw traces—only his trained eye could see—of a wide and wonderful variety of beautiful plants. He could tell that, at one time, it had been a grand and glorious rock garden.

The young man went to the door of the little old ladies’ house. When they opened the door, he said: “If you please, misses, I could not help but notice that that patch of weeds out there was at one time a grand and glorious rock garden. If you would permit me, I could restore it and make it as grand or grander than ever it was before. May I do so?”

The two little old ladies were incensed. “How dare you call our father’s rock garden a patch of weeds. He made a perfect rock garden. It is our pride and joy, our life. That rock garden is our life.”

“But, if you please,” said the young gardener, “I know that it was once a grand and wonderful rock garden. I can see that. But now it has been overrun by weeds. It needs to be restored to its former glory. It is no longer the wonderful rock garden it once was.”

“You are a very unkind and unloving young man,” said the first sister. “It is cruel to go around telling people that their rock gardens are full of weeds. How dare you be so mean?”

“And you are arrogant to boot,” said the second sister. “My father planted some rare and exotic plants in his rock garden. You are barely twenty years old. You cannot possibly distinguish a weed from a rare and exotic plant. It is presumptuous and cocky of you to come to our door and tell us that our rock garden is full of weeds.”

Then the first sister added in a mothering tone, “You must not be critical, son. Just because you don’t happen to like the way our father made his rock garden doesn’t give you the right to criticize it. My father liked it that way. We like it that way. And most other people like it that way. If you don’t like it, that says more about you than about our rock garden. We like our rock garden. It’s a perfect rock garden. It is our pride and joy, our life. The rock garden is our life.”

But the young man would not be deterred. “Please, ma’am. I am not arrogant. You see, I do know the difference between a rare plant and a weed. I have studied the plant encyclopedia all my life. I know what it says. It has taught me how to identify plants. The plants that are now in your garden are weeds. And I am not intending to be critical, ma’am. I only want to help. It looks like it was such a wonderful rock garden at one time, ma’am. I only want to see it wonderful again.”

The second lady responded, “I cannot believe your unremitting arrogance, young man. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Our rock garden is in fine shape. We have no interest in listening to you lecture us on how our rock garden ought to look.”

The young man went away. As he passed the rock garden, he could vividly imagine what a wonderful garden it could have been, and he was deeply grieved.

 

• • •

 

The point of this apocryphal parable is not to suggest that some living person or some institution actually is the counterpart to the young man in this parable. On the contrary, no such counterpart exists today. He represents an ideal, not an existing individual. None but Jesus Himself has ever had the depth and profundity of knowledge that this young man represents. The point of this parable rests in the attitudes of the two sisters. The parable is about the kind of blindness—out of habit—which can prevent believers in particular and the church in general from having the kind of self-critical spirit necessary in order to stay spiritually healthy.

This apocryphal parable sheds some light on the existence of McKenzie Study Center. McKenzie Study Center does not exist to praise the church, to defend the church, to propagate the church, nor to comfort the church. McKenzie Study Center exists to love the church, by criticizing it when it is unworthy of our Lord, and by exhorting it to pursue and practice the truth.

Some will say that we are arrogant; that we have no right to pontificate about what real and authentic Christianity looks like; that we have no right to stand in judgment on what the church is and how it conducts itself. Some will ask who we think we are that we, of all people, should have the inside track on truth.

The answer, of course, is that we are nobody. And indeed nobody should listen to us. But should we not look at the Scriptures? Should we not hear what they have to say? And should we not let them stand in judgment over every aspect of what we do and think?

The question is not whether McKenzie Study Center has an inside track on the truth. I can tell you with the utmost confidence that it does not. In the first place, not all that we say is true; for we are weak, sinful, and ignorant men who are trying to understand our Bibles, and it is unthinkable that we would be without error in how we understand and interpret it. And in the second place, even when we have managed to get something right, there must be another 7,000 men of Israel as well who have not bowed their knee to Baal. Undoubtedly, many other people in our own time know what we know and see what we see; and some with even greater clarity than we possess. And in the past—during times of greater theological and spiritual prosperity—more like 700,000 men of Israel did not bow the knee to Baal. They already knew what we have come to know and already saw what we have come to see. Even if we have stumbled across something true, we do not and cannot pretend to have an exclusive hold on it. We are Johnny-come-latelies, trying to catch up. We are spiritual and theological midgets, trying desperately to keep up with the theological giants who have cleared the path before us. We are reinventing the wheel and rediscovering things known by every schoolboy in ages past.

No, the question is not whether McKenzie Study Center has an inside track on the truth; the question—very simply—is this: what does the Bible teach? We are in the business of making serious suggestions with regard to what our Bibles teach us. Your mission, if you should decide to accept it, is to decide whether our suggestions make sense, to decide whether our understanding of the Bible is right. If it is, how dare anyone disregard it? If it is not, how dare anyone embrace it?

But it is simply a fact: some of our suggestions with respect to what the Bible teaches involve a criticism of the status quo in the church culture of our day. Wes Hurd did not give birth to McKenzie Study Center in 1979 because he wanted to start an institution that would call for the reform of the church and for a re-thinking of Christianity. It just turned out that way. In the beginning, we set out to be loyal supporters of the church, searching the Scriptures to find biblical support for what the Bible-believing church says, does, and thinks. We set our minds to the task of understanding the Bible and the truth, fully expecting that what we would find would, for the most part, vindicate the modern church in its doctrines, beliefs, and practices. It just didn’t turn out as we expected.

I think we are beginning to understand what the Bible is teaching, and the more we understand it, the further from its truth the church appears to be. What then are we to do? We can disregard the message of the Scriptures and remain uncritically loyal to the church. Or we can hear and believe the message of the Bible and call for the reform of the church to bring it into line with what the Bible says. Little by little, we have come to choose the latter—to call for reform. For that, we are said to be against the church. I guess that’s right. McKenzie Study Center does not exist to be loyal to the church; it exists to love the church, by calling for its reform. If that is being against the church, then I guess we are; but not because we oppose the church. Rather, we respect the church and want it to be all that it should be.

Because we deign to criticize the church at times, some will stop their ears to what we are saying. They will not turn with us to the pages in the divine encyclopedia that identify our prevailing doctrines as weeds. They will not go look at the rock garden to see if what we are saying is true. These people will simply accuse us of arrogance and grow louder in their praise of the beauty of their rock garden.

Others of you will take a look. You will search the Scriptures with us to see if what we are saying is so; and you will look with us at the church culture in which we live and subject it to the searching judgment of the truth of the Bible. It is for you that we at McKenzie Study Center exist. We invite you to join us in searching the Bible and learning the God-given truth it reveals. We cannot pretend to have mastered its message; but we can say this: by God’s grace, we are not afraid of its message. We want to learn, we want it to speak to us, and we want to obey. If that is your heart, we are on the same journey; and we invite you to travel with us.

Copyright April 1996 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree