In the Book of Mormon Jacob 5, we find the Allegory of the Olive Tree. I was moved by a different perspective of this allegory, as I studied for Gospel Doctrine Lesson 13. Typically, we understand this as an historical allegory of the House of Israel. But, I read it this time looking for ways to apply it to myself, individually as Nephi says to liken scriptures unto ourselves, and found many insights into the love and grace of God.
Verse 3, we start with a tame olive tree, it grew, and then began to decay. Verse 4, the Master saw it began to decay, and said “I will prune it, and dig about, and nourish it.” This is going to be repeated over and over in this allegory. Pruning, digging, and nourishing.
What is meant by pruning?
I think of this as that difficult process where God is working with us, showing us our weaknesses, helping us repent, providing experiences that seem really difficult at the time, but lead us in a better direction. In this allegory bad branches are cut down and bad fruit is cut off. This sounds painful, but what is the purpose?
In verse 30 he says the bad branches brought forth wild fruit and it did cumber the tree. It was weighing it down. Do you relate? Do we feel weighed down by wild fruit? By our sins, our shortcomings, our failures?
The purpose of pruning is to remove the weight of dead branches and bad fruit. So, this is painful, but it’s meant to help us. And I love what he says he does with the dead branches and fruit lying on the ground after they are pruned. What does he do with them? Does he leave them laying there, so we see them, constantly reminded of our shortcomings? So they mess up the ground around us and stop us from getting nourishment to our roots?
9 Take thou the branches of the wild olive tree, and graft them in, in the stead thereof; and these which I have plucked off I will cast into the fire and burn them, that they may not cumber the ground of my vineyard.
No, he tosses them in the fire. Zenos even expresses this kind of dramatically. Plucked off! Cast in the fire! Burn them! Remove them so they may not weigh down the tree. Then remove them even from the ground, to remove all evidence they ever existed. So they won’t cumber the roots or the ground surrounding the tree in any way.
their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
What is meant by digging?
It has to do with digging around the tree and the roots, so nothing will stop them from growing freely, nothing will steal away its resources, nothing will overcome it, weeds or other trees might grow too close and suck away its strength, grow over the top of it. He clears away obstacles and gives us freedom to grow.
What is mean by nourishing?
He nourishes us by sharing his love, giving us positive experiences, enticing us to follow him.
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
So they try pruning, and digging, and nourishing, and it kind of worked but not fully. In verse 6, a few new tender branches grew, but the top had died. And the Master tells the servant something we see all through the scriptures, and it becomes the theme of this entire allegory: “It grieveth me that I should lose this tree” It grieveth me that I would lose a single one!
So they try again. The Master is pruning, and digging, and nourishing. And he’s telling his servant how to do this. In verse 15, he tells the servant “Come, let us go down into the vineyard, that we may labor in the vineyard.” Later in verse 61 he says call all servants to come help us labor. He needs anyone willing to work. Anyone willing to call themselves his servant and do his work of pruning, nourishing and digging. He’s calling out to bishops and relief society presidents and home teachers and visiting teachers and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and assistant cub scout leaders, and primary teachers, and nursery workers. He is calling out to us and asking us to to help him. Nourish my children. Feed my sheep. It grieveth me that I might lose one.
So they do all this work and come back to check progress and what do they find. Verse 17 “and it had sprung forth and begun to bear fruit. And he beheld that it was good; and the fruit thereof was like unto the natural fruit.” The fruit was good! Yay!
What does that mean that the fruit is good?
I think it means our works are good, our accomplishments, that we are fulfilling our purpose in life. And more broadly that we are living abundantly and with joy.
I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
Something very interesting happens in verse 21. The servant notices there’s a tree in the very worst spot in the vineyard, and asks the Lord, why did you put it here? How would you ever expect someone in that difficult of a condition to make it? In verse 22, the Lord answers “Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore, I said unto thee, I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit.” Do you get goosebumps hearing this answer? I knew I put that tree in poor ground. I knew it was gonna be tough. Mr. Servant, I appreciate you, but you don’t have all the answers. I had a reason I put it there. I gave it EXTRA nourishment, and I worked extra hard with it, and it wasn’t easy, but look at that tree’s fruit. I am damn proud of that tree. Do any of us relate to that tree planted in the most difficult conditions in all the vineyard? Are there times in our lives, we feel we can’t handle the challenges we’re given. The soil is poor and too difficult to overcome. He promises to give us extra nourishment. He’ll get us through it. He also expects his servants to work extra hard caring for these trees.
Then they go to another tree. In verse 25, the Master said I put this one in a good spot, and I worked at it, but only part of its fruit is good and a lot of it is wild. In verse 27, they decide to give it extra care, “pruning, digging, nourishing a little longer.” They come back in verse 30 and it has lots of fruit, they taste the fruit, and it’s bad. Why don’t you have good fruit, you loser? You had the best soil. You had nourishment. You had everything anyone could ask for. You were born into a nice Mormon family with loving parents. You have a nice house, nice clothes, an education. You’ve had all the opportunities in the world. And you still screwed up! Why’d you screw it up? All those other people, it’s OK if they mess up, but not you. You don’t deserve second chances.
Others might give up on you, but God’s not going to.
The Master says, what are we going to do? They worked so hard with this one.
35 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto his servant: The tree profiteth me nothing, and the roots thereof profit me nothing so long as it shall bring forth evil fruit.
36 Nevertheless, I know that the roots are good, and for mine own purpose I have preserved them; and because of their much strength they have hitherto brought forth, from the wild branches, good fruit.
The fruit is bad, but the root is good. The root is good! Do we ever feel like that? We just can’t seem to get it right. Our fruit is bad. But God knows our root is good. He’s going to keep working with us.
Then they go and check other trees and they see they’re all in the same condition. The roots are still strong but all the fruit is bad.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;
In verse 41, the Lord laments ““what more could I have done for my vineyard?” He’s in so much pain. He seems to be going back and forth on what to do. In verse 42, he says, we should tear them all down, but in verse 47 he says again it grieveth him that he should lose them.
Verse 49, he’s made his decision, but he seems to be testing the servant to see how he’ll react. He says it’s final, let’s go burn it all down. Then the servant in verse 50 says, let’s give it one last try. And the Lord agrees “Yea, I will spare it a little longer, for it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard.” You got it right, servant, of course we’re not going to burn down this garden. Let’s get to work.
How many times is he going to give these wild olive trees a chance??
So they work one last time, pruning, and digging and nourishing, and he calls in more servants to help, and they labor diligently, and then in verse 73…success! The natural branches thrived and brought forth fruit, and the Lord rejoices and takes joy in partaking of the fruit. He thanks his servants for helping him nourish his vineyard.
It’s touching to see how much the Lord is rejoicing in the end. Throughout this allegory when he reaps good fruit, he is collecting it, gathering it, preserving it, tasting it. He enjoys it. This is what is bringing him joy. When we live joyfully and with purpose and realize our goals, that is what brings him fulfillment and joy. Those of us that are parents relate to this this. Our greatest happiness is in the lives of our children. And we’re not talking narrowly in terms of church activity, but in really living with joy and abundance.
This allegory must have had special significance to Jacob, as he read it in the Brass Plates, authored by the prophet Zenos. His father Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life was one of the significant spiritual revelations of his lifetime, and one that he referred to in his own writings. The theme of the vision of the Tree of Life was the human journey of finding God, holding onto the word of God, staying on the path, avoiding pitfalls, and finally reaching the fruit that represented the love of God. For Father Lehi, it “filled my soul with exceedingly great joy.” Now we have the other side of the coin. We see the same journey through God’s eyes, working with us, nourishing us, doing everything he can to get us to bear good fruit. And he’s experiencing the same joy partaking of our fruit.