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Editor’s Note: Our friend and longtime Meridian writer Larry Barkdull recently passed away. To remember and honor him this is one of a series of his past articles that we are republishing weekly.
“No greater work has the Lord God of heaven ever undertaken than to save the souls of his children. It is the grandest, the greatest undertaking that ever has been inaugurated”– Elder Rulon S. Wells
Zenos’s allegory of the tame olive-tree gone wayward in the Book of Mormon is clearly symbolic of God’s nourishing and reclaiming the House of Israel. But Israel is also individual people. Therefore, this allegory can be applied to God’s dealings with his individual wayward children. Therefore, as we explore this allegory, insert the name of your wayward loved one in the place of the olive tree.
Consider the following letter from a mother of a wayward son.
I am the mother of six children–four girls and two boys–all born during a nine year span. Because they were close in age, one child’s behavior had an affect on all the rest. We were a close family. We had a boat, water-skied, snow-skied, hiked, and played together. We also all worked together; cleaned house and did the yard work, with everyone assigned part of the task. We went to church every Sunday, and were a close-knit family, in a healthy, happy way. My husband was a good man; a good husband and father. However, his job required that he go out of town frequently, and I was often dealing with our children on my own.
The oldest boy, Scott (name changed), had been a difficult child, from the time he was a baby. It was exhausting to be his mother. He was my 4th child, so it wasn’t that I was inexperienced, but I went to bed exhausted, night after night, from dealing with him. He drained more of my energy than the other five children. He seemed to delight in tormenting his younger brother and sisters. When a particular older sister walked into a room where he was, the instant tension was palpable, and all of us felt it. We couldn’t even hold Family Home Evening for more than a few minutes without his disrupting everything. It was daily chaos.
One night, in despair, I wondered if we should send him to a foster home. It was a shock to me that I had even thought of something like that. But Scott’s behavior just wasn’t fair to the other five children; it wasn’t right that they should suffer unrelenting torment. That night I prayed earnestly to know if sending him to a foster home was the right answer. I was at my wit’s end, and I was desperate to find a rational answer. I asked the Lord why Scott had come to our family.
Then the answer quietly came into my heart and mind: The Spirit whispered that I was the only one who would love him no matter what he did, and that he needed to have every opportunity to succeed in this life. I was to give him that. It was a profound answer that soothed my troubled heart, and encouraged me to look for other ways to work with my son.
My husband and I went to work. We had to teach him discipline and responsibility without breaking his spirit. With a lot of prayer and hard work, we made it through his teen-age years. After that, he still had years of ups and downs, and trials, mostly of his own making. He will turn 40 soon. He is now married and has a cute family. He is a wonderful husband and father. It gives me so much joy to see him amazingly happy and more contented than I had once thought he could possibly be. His wife is perfect for him, and we all love her so much. We all love Scott, too, like we always wanted to. Now when our family gets together, it is truly a joyous occasion. We have love in our home.
The Wayward Olive Tree as a Wayward Child
When we are first introduced to the olive tree in Jacob 5, we are led to understand that this tree was a favorite of the Lord of the vineyard, who represents God, the Father. Evidently, this was a tree that he had lovingly nourished for a very long time. Then, as the tree grew, a crisis occurred-the tree “began to decay.” Alarmed, the Lord made an exerted attempt to save it. This was the first of his many attempts and his many long time periods of waiting.
As each redemptive episode is described, so is the Lord’s character revealed.
That It Perish Not
The Lord’s first attempt to save the tree spanned “many days” while he diligently pruned, dug about and nourished the tree that “it perish not.” Interestingly, as a strategy to save the tame tree, the Lord allowed it to mix with a wild olive-tree to preserve the tame tree’s root, the only part that had not yet decayed. This procedure might seem abhorrent to some observers.
Equally disconcerting is the Lord’s willingness to cut away the corrupted parts of the tame olive-tree and cast them into the fire. If anyone except the Lord were doing this, we might question that person’s sanity. But the Lord’s ways are not man’s ways; obviously he had a well-thought-out and often violent plan to save the tree, and he was willing to take the long view and give the redemptive process time to work. In allowing the tame tree to mix with the wild tree, he was attempting to save the undecayed part by any means available, even if that meant his temporarily allowing otherwise unthinkable co-mingling. Although the Lord knew that the tame tree would bring forth wild fruit for a time, nevertheless, he was in control of the eventual outcome. In the meantime, he was willing to do whatever he had to do with present resources to save the tree.
Patience and Long-suffering
Zenos is careful to describe the Lord’s character as the prophet unfolds this allegory. For example, at every step the Lord is “grieved that he should lose the tree,” indicating the Lord’s deep affection and commitment for his creation. Zenos lists the Lord’s multiple efforts to save the tree, and Zenos also emphasizes that each of the Lord’s efforts is followed by long periods of the Lord’s waiting to assess the tree’s progress. Although each effort results in a failure or a complication, the Lord does not give up. Rather, the Lord starts over with more digging about, pruning, and nourishing; he is always working to preserve the good parts of the tree.
Over time, the Lord guides the tree (or segments of it) on an extensive and agonizing journey. The tree (or segments of it) ends up all over the vineyard, some segments end up in the “nethermost parts” of the vineyard and in “the poorest spot in all the land.” The parable of The Prodigal Son calls the nethermost parts the “far country.” But even in these remote areas, the Lord knows where the tree is and how to bring it back.
Periodically the Lord performs extreme surgery to save the tree; segments are cut away and burned or transplanted in what might otherwise seem desperate or chaotic attempts. Finally, with its grafted-in wild branches, the tree appears so broken, fragmented and disfigured that it no longer resembles its original self. At one point, when we finally allow ourselves to feel the tiniest hope that progress is being made, we discover that the tree’s roots and top are out of balance and threatening its survival. It is as though Zenos is trying to tell us that the body and mind/spirit are working contrary to each other.
Worse, the tame branches that the Lord had tried preserve in another part of the vineyard have now become corrupt and overrun with wild branches. Yet another surgery is needed. We wonder: Who could ever put this tree back together and cause it to bring forth good fruit again?
An amazing thing happens here: “And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more?” In tears, the Lord then reviewed all that he had tried over long periods of time to save the tree, and now he mourned that the tree not only continued to bring forth “evil fruit” but it had corrupted the trees near it. Contemplating such a dire situation, God wept!
Who would not?
After all his efforts and endurance, the perfect, long-suffering Lord lamented that he seemed to have no other option except to hew down the tree and those that it had corrupted and cast them all into the fire. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord speaks of this condition of exasperation as it relates to his dealing with his stubborn, unrepentant, wicked children. He states that these people even try the patience of the angels of heaven, who finally are compelled to cry out enough is enough! “Behold, verily I say unto you, the angels are crying unto the Lord day and night, who are ready and waiting to be sent forth to reap down the fields.
The Savior’s Intervention
Then, when the Lord had fully intended to cast the corrupt tree and its companions “into the fire that they not cumber the ground of the vineyard,” the mediating servant (Jesus Christ) stepped forward and pleaded, “Spare it a little longer.” The character and mission of the Savior are revealed here. The Savior has suffered for these wicked ones and he does not want his sacrifice to have been for naught. He suffered for their misdeeds and he overcame everything that stood between the wayward one and exaltation, if they would repent and come back to him.
Therefore, the servant, who represents the Savior, pleaded with the Lord of the vineyard for more patience and clemency for the corrupt tree. Eventually, he convinced the Lord of the vineyard, who was still grieved to lose his tree, to try yet one more time.
A Final Attempt to Reclaim
At that point, the Lord of the vineyard came up with a final elaborate plan. (Notice that he (the Father) is the one who devises the plan and is in charge of its execution). The plan involved yet another major surgery on the tree. The plan also would encompass the width and breadth of the vineyard.
Together, the Lord and his servant set out again to graft and pluck and work with every segment of the tree from its roots to its branches. Their combined effort was beyond anything that had previously been attempted. It required segregating the tame tree from the wild ones, which now had fulfilled their purpose and were destined for the fire. The plan called for the Lord’s enlisting other servants-earthly and heavenly servants–to help. This massive effort was shaping up to be a full-court press to save the tree by means of every resource that the Lord could assemble. “Wherefore, let us labor with our might this last time,” the Lord told his servants. “Prune…graft in the branches…dig about…dung them once more, for the last time….” The Lord instructed his servants to pay close attention that the tree would achieve balanced growth–its roots proportionate to its top. As the servants helped to nurse the tree back to health, they were to carefully clear away any bad branches and nourish the good ones.
The Lord’s enormous effort, which had spanned his kingdom and involved vast amounts of time and resources, ended with the full restoration and redemption of his one beloved olive-tree, “which was most precious unto him from the beginning.” Now and forever this saved one would produce good and natural fruit.
Can we not see in this parable the Father and the Son’s effort to save the one? They are willing to work together and expend vast amounts of time, effort and resources to achieve their objective. In the process, they experience the full range of emotions, including exasperation. Nevertheless, they are always willing to try one more time and enlist both heavenly and earthly help to rescue their precious tree. In the end, they succeed. They have taken every necessary step to salvage the good parts of the tree then bring everything together in a perfect, balanced form so that the tree will bring forth good fruit forever.
Note: This article is adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.