In the fifth chapter of the book of Jacob we read the words of the prophet Zenos, an Old Testament prophet who tells the parable of the olive tree. Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are familiar with this story of a man who is the lord of a vineyard who has a favorite olive tree which he has his servants take great care of. Yet, despite their efforts the tree begins to bear bitter fruit. The lord of the vineyard then instruct his servants to put more effort into nourishing and caring for the tree but, despite all their hard work, the tree continues to bear bitter fruit.
From there the parable becomes fairly complex as the lord of the vineyard tries to graft in branches from a wild olive tree in the hopes of saving the tame olive tree but he only meets with limited success. However, in its simplest form we learn that the tame olive tree sprouts some good shoots which the lord of the vineyard has replanted in some of the farthest parts of his vineyard. In the beginning these shoots grow strong and bear good fruit but in time even they start going bad. Time after time the lord of the vineyard has his servants go to and work with all of their might to nourish and care for these trees, trying different techniques, all in an effort to make them productive, but as the harvesting season begins to draw to a close, none of the trees are doing well.
By this time the lord of the vineyard has become discouraged and laments, "What could I have done more for my vineyard? Have I slackened my hand that I have not nourished it? Have I stretched forth my hand all most all the day long? Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?" (vs 47). He is so discouraged that he feels that his vineyard is good for nothing except to have all the trees cut down and burned (vs 42). However, his servants ask him to delay destroying the trees explaining that "the branches [have] overcome the roots because they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, this is the cause that the trees have become corrupted" (vs 48).
The lord of the vineyard then says, "we will nourish again the trees of the vineyard and we will trim up the branches thereof… and this I do that perhaps the roots thereof may take strength because of their goodness and because of the change of the branches that the good may overcome the evil… Then shall ye prepare the way for them that they may grow. And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit according to the strength of the good… Wherefore, ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow that the root and the top [of the tree] may be equal in strength until the good shall overcome the bad and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard and thus I will sweep away the bad out of my vineyard." (vs 58, 59, 64, 65, 66).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we know this is a parable about Israel who is God's chosen people which is represented by the olive tree. Yet, despite all that God has done for them they had become a corrupt and wicked people. The small shoots represent a small segment of Israel who have remained faithful and whom God has transplanted to other parts of the world. In the beginning these offshoots remained faithful but after awhile even they became spiritually corrupt and fell into wickedness.
The Book of Mormon is the record of one of those offshoots. It is the history of a small group of righteous Israelites whom God led out of Jerusalem around 600 B.C. and how they were led to the American continent by the hand of the Lord. Once they became settled in their new land the Book of Mormon tells of how they grew to be a mighty nation and how they were destroyed nearly a thousand years later because of their wickedness. Within the pages of the Book of Mormon we read of another group of righteous people who had been brought to the American continent at the time when the tower of Babel was being built and how they too eventually were destroyed because of their wickedness.
In the Book of Mormon we also read of how the resurrected Christ came to visit the Nephites and declared to them that not only were they descendants of Israel but that there are other nations besides those in the Middle East who are also Israelites whom He needed to visit (3 Nephi 15:17). These too are the shoots that Zenos was referring to in his parable.
The end of the harvest season represents the end times or the last days when Christ will come to the earth in power and glory. At that time the entire world will be corrupt, with the exception of a few righteous people. In the parable, the desire of the lord to burn his entire vineyard represents the burning of the earth just before Christ descends from heaven when all the wicked will be destroyed. However, before that time comes God will stretch forth his hand one more time in an effort to save his earthly kingdom (i.e., his vineyard).
That is the obvious interpretation of this parable but there is another, more modern application that seems to have a direct effect on us in America. In the parable the servants tell their lord that the cause of all this corruption was because the branches grew faster than the roots were able to nourish them. Whether such a situation is actually possible is immaterial because this story isn't based on fact. Instead, it is an allegory which is meant to illustrate a principle.
When America was first colonized, it was founded upon Christian principles and Americans in general lived their lives according to those principles. It is those Christians principles that are our roots which nourish us as a people and which gives us our strength. But today that is no longer true. Instead we seem to be growing away from those principles as God is being pushed out of our schools, our governments, and even out of our society in general.
As a result we have grown faster than our Christian roots are able to nourish us. To put it another way, we have figuratively grown too big for our britches. We have out grown our need to be nourished by the word of God and we are now nourishing our souls with the things of the world. As a result, our actions as a nation are now producing bitter results.
But this is nothing new. This same phenomenon has happened all over the world. Christianity was first planted in the Middle East yet today Christians there are being persecuted and have become a small minority in a land were Islam has become the predominate faith. As a result Christianity there has been stifled and prevented from growing.
At the same time, as Islam has taken over the Middle East it has fostered religious hatred which has helped fuel violence against people of different faiths. In its wake it has neglected the rights of all men. Instead of promoting an attitude of loving your enemy, Islam has encouraged its followers to view everyone who doesn't subscribe to their religious viewpoint as an enemy. Instead of peace there is repression and fear. Instead of prosperity there is poverty and hunger on a large scale.
In the early history of Christianity, missionaries spread the gospel of Jesus Christ all throughout Europe where it took strong root as the Catholic Church became so powerful that it literally controlled the governments of every nation in that part of the world for centuries. But today, the Church is dying there as more and more Europeans put their trust in secular wisdom as the guiding principles in their lives. And it is in this way that they are growing beyond their need to believe in the God of their fathers. As a result Europe is experiencing great difficulties.
In ancient Russia the Catholic faith was once preached all over that great empire but when the Communists came into power they banned Christianity, labeling it as an obstacle to society. The Chinese Communists referred to is as "the opiate of the people." With deliberate intent, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao set about, using the full force of the government, to systematically eradicate Christianity in every land where their governments had control. Although they didn't succeed in completely destroying Christianity, nonetheless their efforts nearly drove the Christian faith to extinction.
As we look all over the earth - the Lord's vineyard - what we see is that it has all become corrupt. Everywhere we look we see wars and hear of rumors of wars. Everywhere we look we see hatred and contention increasing. As a result, everywhere we look we see the fruits of bitterness, misery, and suffering. Yet, despite the distress among the nations of the earth, instead of turning to God, mankind is turning away from God and is depending on his own wisdom to resolve his problems. However, instead of making things better, he is only succeeding in making things worse.
Then what can be done to reverse this situation? According to the parable of the vineyard, God intends to cut off the wicked from the land and, in so doing, make the top of the tree to be equal to the root of the tree. In other words, like a gardener pruning his trees, God intends to cut us down to size in an effort to help man draw closer to Him and thereby receive the spiritual nourishment he needs to properly blossom. It is in this way that the top becomes equal with the root which will cause mankind to yield the fruit of joy instead of the fruit of bitterness.
As God clears away the bad, this will allow the good to grow and unless He does this then the bad will continue to grow and choke off the good. But it is interesting to note that the parable says "Wherefore, ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow that the root and the top [of the tree] may be equal in strength until the good shall overcome the bad." In other words, the Lord of the vineyard doesn't intend to cut off the bad branches all at once. Instead, He will do it "according as the good shall grow." What this means is that the bad will be cut off only in proportion to the growth of goodness.
That also infers the opposite situation which is that if goodness doesn't grown then neither will the bad be cut off. Therefore, to get rid of the bad branches requires that the good branches must increase in strength, otherwise all that will happen is that the tree will be completely destroyed. However, that is not the goal of the Master. His plan is to save the tree, not destroy it.
As the parable points out, the lord of the vineyard doesn't leave this situation to happen on its own. God, who is the Lord of the vineyard, has stretched forth his hand to make this happen. What this parable illustrates is that God is not sitting idly by watching his vineyard decay but instead is actively working with all of His might all the day long to nourish, strengthen, and save his kingdom in an effort to make goodness grow .
As we see evil growing in the world, it is interesting to observe that, at the same time, we can also see examples of goodness also growing. It seems that as the wicked become more wicked, the righteous are likewise becoming more righteous but that isn't by accident.
This situation was illustrated by Jesus when He gave the parable of the wheat and the tares. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a man who sowed good seed in his field but while he slept "his enemy came and sowed tares (weeds) among the wheat." In time both the wheat and the tares grew up together and the servants asked the master of the fields if he wanted them to go out and pull up the tares. However the master forbid them to do so saying, "While ye gather up the tares, ye [may also] root up the wheat [along] with them. [Therefore] let [them] both grow together until the harvest and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye up together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:24-30)
In this parable, the master of the fields allowed both the wheat and the weeds to each grow strong. In the beginning of this growing process it was hard to tell the weeds from the wheat but as they each developed it became easier and easier to tell the difference between the two. In the same way it becomes much easier to see the difference between the wicked and the righteous as the wicked become more wicked and the righteous become more righteous.
More than that, as the righteous become stronger in their faith the better able they will be to withstand the trauma of the harvest that will come when the wicked are uprooted and destroyed. Without this kind of strength, the weak in faith will perish along with the wicked. Since it is God's intention to save His people, He will do all that He can to make sure that the righteous are properly nourished so they will be sufficiently strong enough to endure the harvesting process.
However, it seems to be a truism that what makes Christians grow stronger in their faith is adversity and the stronger the adversity the stronger their faith becomes. And, as history has repeatedly shown, all too often prosperity and peace have been a curse to those who believe in Christ because when all is going well for them, they tend to grow beyond their need for God, thinking that their successful lifestyle has been a result of their own wisdom and their own labors.
The reason for this is that most of the time we are not able to see the hand of God working in our lives and because things seem to happen so naturally we have a tendency to dismiss our success as a result of God's intervention in our life. But when things are going badly for Christians they better recognize their limitations and weaknesses and, of necessity, cry unto God for help. And as they do, they more naturally draw closer to Him and are more willing to receive instruction from Him by being more humbly obedient to Him. It is in this way that they are spiritually nourished and are able to grow stronger in their faith.
Of course, no one wants to encounter adversity in their life but unfortunately it is necessary if we want to grow. But as wickedness grows then so does adversity for those who believe in doing good. In the beginning of Christianity the gospel was preached and accepted in relative peace but it wasn't long before they became persecuted, and as the persecution continued it intensified. Yet it was that very persecution that made the early saints stronger and more steadfast in their faith than they otherwise would have been.
Today as we see how wickedness is growing at an alarming rate throughout the world, it seems certain that Christians will face greater adversity if they intend to remain true to their beliefs. What is interesting to note is that in the parable of the olive tree it says that after the bad branches are hewn down they will be cast into the fire so "that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard and thus I will sweep away the bad out of my vineyard."
When viewed in the context of the second coming of Christ, this means that God intends to "sweep away" or get rid of all wickedness from off of the entire earth so that when Christ comes again the earth will no longer be encumbered (burdened, hindered, weighed down) with the ways of the wicked. However, to do that will no doubt require great destruction, and destruction often involves some sort of a violent event. When a patient is severely ill the doctor has to administer strong medicine in order to cure and save them. Spiritually speaking, the world is severely ill and it appears that when the harvesting time comes the medicine that the Lord will need to dispense in order to destroy the wicked may be very strong.
The pruning of a tree doesn't affect the person doing the pruning because they can't feel what the tree is feeling. But to the tree, having its branches cut off is a shock to its system. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the master of the field waited until the wheat was strong enough to survive the violent encounter of the reaping process. In both parables there are acts of violence in connection with getting rid of the wicked.
If both parables illustrate how the Lord of the universe intends to remove wickedness from the earth through cutting, pulling, and setting on fire the spiritual deadwood then it is not only necessary that the righteous be first strengthened in order to endure this cleansing process but it also clearly infers that the righteous will have to go through the same process that will destroy those who are not sufficiently strong enough to withstand it.
As we look at how wickedness around the world is growing at an alarming rate it appears that the parable of the olive tree is just as pertinent for Christians today as it is for the Israelites, for whom the parable was originally intended. Those Christians who are wondering where is God during all of this wickedness, in the parable that Zenos gave we can see that the lord of the vineyard is very mindful of what is happening to his beloved property and that he is personally involved in directing the work of his servants to save that which belongs to him.
And the same can be said of Christ. He is very much aware of what is happing in His vineyard and He is personally involved in directing the work of His servants in their effort to nourish and strengthen His kingdom here on earth. God has not forsaken those who believe in him and his hand is not shortened but rather it is stretched out in an effort to save that which belongs to Him. That is what we learn from reading the parable of the olive tree.