Sometimes getting through the first couple hundred pages of the Book of Mormon can be tough. Of course, we have traditional favorites like Nephi and company returning to get the plates from wicked Laban or building a boat to carry their refugee family across a vast ocean. But we also have to make our way through a jungle of Isaiah chapters that we may or may not fully understand. And then we hit Jacob 5—the allegory of the olive tree.
Jacob 5—the allegory of the olive tree—just happens to be the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon. It can be a little overwhelming to understand, let alone teach to others in the new home-centered, Church-supported approach to gospel learning.
As I’ve spent some time this week reading and studying the allegory of the olive tree, I’ve discovered something profound. Even though this chapter has many different layers and meanings, for me it comes down to this simple truth. The allegory of the olive tree is really just a story about the Master of the vineyard and me, His little olive tree.
Why This Allegory?
Before looking at the allegory itself, it’s important to understand why Jacob chooses to include it right here in his teachings. If you’ll recall, Jacob’s record begins as he assumes the spiritual leadership of this fledgling Nephite nation following the death of his older brother Nephi.
Jacob is single minded in his desire to help his people (and us) know and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ. He works tirelessly to persuade his people to come unto Christ and not rebel against God through bad choices. Unfortunately, “the people of Nephi …began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices” (Jacob 1:15).
So Jacob, “having first obtained [his] errand from the Lord” (Jacob 1:17), teaches his people about the destructive nature of pride and unchastity. He then goes on to try to help them know how to overcome these vices and turn to the Lord.
He tells them to “look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith” (Jacob 3:1). He encourages them to “lift up [their] heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love” (Jacob 3:2). He pleads with them, “Shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death; and loose yourselves fro the pains of hell” (Jacob 3:11). He teaches them about Christ’s grace so they can have power to overcome their weakness (see Jacob 4:7). And he begs them to not look beyond the mark for answers but to build upon “the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation” which is Jesus Christ (see Jacob 4:14–16).
And then he says, I really don’t want you to miss what I’m trying to tell you about turning to Jesus Christ. So I will teach you with this allegory.
I am the Olive Tree
Jacob retells the allegory of the olive tree from the teachings of Zenos, an Old-World prophet who lived sometime before Isaiah but whose writings have been lost save for the teachings found throughout the Book of Mormon.
As with most prophetic writings and teachings, the allegory of the olive tree contains many layers of meaning. The chapter heading to Jacob 5 reads, “Jacob quotes Zenos relative to the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees—They are a likeness of Israel and the Gentiles—The scattering and gathering of Israel are prefigured—Allusions are made to the Nephites and Lamanites and all the house of Israel—The Gentiles will be grafted into Israel—Eventually the vineyard will be burned.” Certainly, this allegory is the story of the scattering and gathering of Israel. In a broader sense, it could be the story of the history of the world, from creation to judgment, encompassing all of God’s children.
But on a more personal level, the allegory of the olive tree is about me. And it’s about you. It’s about each of us as individual children of God. And, just as Jacob is so anxious for his people and us to understand, it’s about Jesus Christ. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught, “The essential element in this story is Christ and His redemptive Atonement…. Whatever other applications it may have—and it has several—this allegory as recounted by Jacob is from the outset intended to be about Christ, the ‘head of their corner’ [see Jacob 4:17]” (Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon ).
I am the olive tree the Master of the vineyard, even Jesus Christ, is so anxious to save.
The Efforts of the Master
You don’t have to read far in the allegory to find words like prune, dig, dung, nourish, labor, graft, or pluck off. Likewise, there are several references to planting, replanting, transplanting, moving, and visiting. As we read, we get the sense that the Master, either alone or with the help of His servants, is hard at work caring for His trees.
In fact, it appears to be His only work. It calls to mind the scripture, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). And this loving verse: “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24).
Jesus Christ is solely focused on helping His olive trees grow. He has no other motive. He has no other occupation. So when He does things like prune or transplant us, we can have perfect confidence in His methods and purposes.
Pruning. Pruning sometimes hurts. But the end result is worth the pain when we trust our Savior. Elder D. Todd Christofferson tells the story of a man who learned an important lesson about this pruning process. Watch it here.
Poor ground. In the allegory, it states: “And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard. And the Lord of the vineyard said unto him: 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” (Jacob 5:21–22).
The servant asks the master why he planted his good branch in the poorest spot. It seems counterintuitive. But the Lord, in loving kindness, says, counsel me not. I know what I’m doing. I am nourishing this tender branch because I love it. And it will bring forth the best fruit.
Sometimes we look to the Lord and say, “Why have you brought me to this poorest ground? Why have you asked me to endure this trial? Why, if you love me and if I’m trying to be the good branch, don’t you plant me in the good spot, the spot of my choosing?”
But with loving kindness, He responds, “Counsel me not little child. I know where you are. I know the ground I have planted you in. But I am your caretaker. I am nourishing you. I am working out your salvation exactly as I know best for your most fruit. I am caring for you that I may preserve you unto myself.”
The Master loves us. He is aware of us. He cares for us. He just asks that we trust Him in the growing process.
Nourishing. The Master is so good at nourishing His trees. Think about the ways He continues to nourish us. He gives us scripture to guide us through life. He gives us the companionship of the Holy Ghost so we can live in revelation daily, which is no small nourishment. He gives us living prophets, His selected servants in the vineyard, to prepare us for turbulent times.
This very day, our vineyard is facing many physical and spiritual storms, not the least of which is a worldwide pandemic. And while the physical threat of the pandemic looms large, it is no less threatening than the spiritual whirlwinds threatening the fabric of our families and communities.
But we have a Master Gardener who has prepared us for these storms. He has and continues to nourish us with counsel like the following from our beloved prophet, President Russell M. Nelson. “Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ” (“We Can Do Better and Be Better,” April 2019 General Conference).
Or President Nelson’s encouraging nourishment: “Imagine the miracle of it! … We can pray to our Heavenly Father and receive guidance and direction, be warned about dangers and distractions, and be enabled to accomplish things we simply could not do on our own. If we will truly receive the Holy Ghost and learn to discern and understand His promptings, we will be guided in matters large and small” (“Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” April 2018 General Conference).
Or these prophetic words from Elder David A. Bednar: “The ultimate missionary training center is in our homes…Family history centers now are in our homes….[And] temple preparation classes occur in our homes….” Further, he said, “Making our homes sanctuaries wherein we can ‘stand in holy places’ is essential in these latter days. And as important as home-centered and Church-supported learning is for our spiritual strength and protection today, it will be even more vital in the future” (“Prepared to Obtain Every Needful Thing,” April 2019 General Conference).
It appears that future is now. Aren’t we grateful for this nourishment from the Master so we can be prepared.
The Feelings of the Master
No less than eight times, the Master of the vineyard expresses the same sentiment when explaining how He feels about His work with each individual tree. He exclaims, “It grieveth me that I should lose this tree” (Jacob 5:7; See also Jacob 5:11, 13, 32, 46, 47, 51, and 66).
The Savior loves each of us, right here, right now. He knows we need work. He knows there is pruning to be done. He knows a significant amount of plucking needs to take place to clean out our decay (see below). But He also feels a deep sorrow at the thought of losing even one of us.
In His personal garden, the Savior paid the ultimate price to show us how deep His love runs. In modern revelation, the Lord said, “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him” (Doctrine & Covenants 18:10–11). How much value do we have in His eyes? Enough that He would pay for us with His very life.
What more tender sentiment could be expressed than these touching words? “And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?” (Jacob 5:41). Or these touching questions? “But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it?” (Jacob 5:47).
His devotion to us runs deep—eternally deep. He wants us to come to Him, place our burdens at His feet, ask Him our most troubling questions, share our deepest sorrows. He grieves when we turn to other sources for the comfort, guidance, and safety only He can give.
He has and continues to give us everything. Knowing how deeply He cares, we should allow Him to grow us.
The Decay in Me
We can’t read this allegory without noticing that plucking out and burning are part of the growing process. On some very real levels, this plucking refers to the wicked who will be plucked out and burned because they “had become corrupt” (Jacob 5:39), “withered away and died” (Jacob 5:40), “are good for nothing” (Jacob 5:42), or “cumbered [the] spot of ground” (Jacob 5:44).
But on a personal level, we each have decay within us that needs to be plucked out and burned so we can grow to our full potential and realize the blessing of the good fruit we have the ability to produce (and experience). We need to not let the “loftiness of the vineyard” blind us so we are tricked into “taking strength unto [ourselves]” (Jacob 5:48). In other words, we can’t let pride seep in and convince us that we have all the answers. We need a Savior—always.
King Benjamin taught us about the need to remove the decay from ourselves. He said, “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
It’s vitally important to understand that we are not inherently filled with decay. We are, in fact, beloved tame olive trees. We are children of Heavenly Parents with a divine potential to become like Them. But as a result of the Fall of Adam, we are subject to natural (or mortal) elements, appetites, and weakness. We are susceptible to decay.
However, the Master of the vineyard recognizes the decay within us and, as we come to Him, will take it from us and replace it with life. As we seek Him, repent, keep His commandments, and experience true, lasting conversion, He will take our wrong understandings, practices, and tendencies, and shape and mold them into a character fit for His kingdom.
Remember, it grieves Him to lose even one of us. So He will look on our decay with the eye of a Master Gardener, ever careful and mindful of removing it so we can be healthy and whole.
The Purpose of the Master
Throughout the allegory of the olive tree, the Master points out why He is willing to work and care as much as He does. Over and over, He declares, “I do it that I may preserve unto myself the … tree, and also, that I may lay up fruit thereof, against the season, unto myself” (Jacob 5:13, emphasis added).
He wants to call us His. He wants us home—with Him and like Him—to receive all that He has. He wants us to claim the blessings promised the faithful, to become “gods, even the sons [and daughters] of God.” He wants to declare, “Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s…[that we may be] made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (Doctrine & Covenants 76:58–59, 69).
He wants to call us His.
The Final Invitation
After Jacob concludes the allegory of the olive tree, he drives his message home with these final words in Jacob 6:4–5.
“How merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long; and they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people; but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts.”
The Master of the vineyard is merciful unto us. He is working diligently to grow us and preserve us unto Himself. He paid the price for us and is cleaving unto us tenaciously. And He is ever extending His invitation to us–repent, cleave unto me, harden not your hearts.
He ever reminds each of us, you are my beloved olive tree.