Zenos’ allegory about olive trees blossomed with new life when our youth Sunday School class read from the perspective of preparing for missionary service.
Book of Mormon prophet Jacob used the allegory to preface a powerful plea to know the importance of repentance and make wise decisions.
I imagine Jacob gathering his extended family for a lesson, maybe around a fire or nestled inside a crude building on a cool jungle night. I imagine him sitting with the brass plates on his knees — the same ancient record full of family history and prophetic writings that his older brothers retrieved from Jerusalem and carried across the ocean to the new world.
I’m sure Jacob had been inspired by personal study of the words of Zenos, an Old Testament-era prophet whose teachings have not been preserved in any other format available to us today. Jacob’s excitement to share insights would be similar to my own dad optimistically teaching Isaiah’s deep symbolism during a family home evening in front of a couch full of toddlers and teens.
Jacob’s lesson about tame and wild olive trees might have garnered the same response as my dad’s agricultural analogies that have been known to last too long but end abruptly before a wrestling match ensues.
“Repent (and) be wise, what can I say more,” Jacob summarized at the end of chapter six with an imagined shoulder shrug and arms lifted to a distracted audience.
So I wasn’t surprised at the confession of one 16-year-old Sunday School student who said chapter five in the book of Jacob featuring Zenos’ olive tree allegory is easy to skim. But I was confident that if we used the scriptures to prepare for missionary service, the symbolism might translate like never before.
We began our lesson with one student drawing a picture of an olive tree on the chalkboard with an especially thick and gnarled trunk. While he drew, another student hung papers that listed the symbols in the allegory while others matched the meanings: Jesus Christ is the “Master of the vineyard,” the House of Israel is the “tame olive tree,” gentiles represent the “wild olive tree,” and servants in the vineyard are the same as prophets and others who are called to serve, like missionaries.
The allegory describes working in the vineyard: tilling soil, pruning and grafting branches, burning unproductive trees and ultimately awaiting the harvest with hope for good, rather than bitter, fruit. In some cases, seedlings were planted in terrible soil but still produced good olives because of the strength of the grafted branches.
We could have spent 30 minutes of Sunday School time studying the applicable history of civilization or arborist husbandry but instead we likened the symbolism of the allegory to ourselves and discussed the following sampling of ideas (in no particular order):
• To be a productive servant in the Lord’s kingdom, we, like an olive tree, must be pruned vigorously, sometimes even burned metaphorically, to overcome our “wild” natures and natural tendencies of selfishness, pride and arrogance.
• When sharing the gospel, we encourage confidence by showing that grafting in the gospel of Jesus Christ can turn any life into a pure and spiritually productive future.
• After all the pruning and grafting, an olive tree’s gnarled trunk can become the opposite of beauty and symmetry. So it is with us. Our physical bodies may not conform to the world’s view of beauty, but after a lot of spiritual work, our soul becomes as valuable to the Lord as pure fruit at harvest time. It’s the fruit we need to prioritize, not the appearance of the tree.
• An olive tree’s roots must be nourished constantly in order to reach it’s full productive potential. We, too, must be vigilant about properly nourishing our bodies and souls, especially when preparing for missionary service.
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