“Can you help me understand the parable of the tame and wild olive tree?” Ensign, Apr. 1977, 30–32
Lenet Hadley Read, Primary president, Tulsa Fourth Ward, Tulsa Oklahoma Stake The Book of Mormon gives its own answer to this question, though it is often missed because it is given long before the full parable is given. In 1 Nephi 15:7–20, Nephi explains to his older brothers that as a family they are a “branch” broken off the main house of Israel in Jerusalem. [1 Ne. 15:7–20] Because Nephi had just seen in vision the coming of Christ and the eventual falling away of his people after their establishment on the American continent, he explains that this “branch” of Israel will eventually be corrupted and temporarily abandoned, whereupon the gentiles will inherit the kingdom. But eventually the Lord will reach out his hand again to gather their seed, as well as the Jews, into full and righteous membership in God’s house.
The parable is as significant as all similar prophecies concerning these events, for those same prophecies are given again and again in other forms. The Savior himself personally reiterated them during his ministry to the Nephites. (See 3 Ne. 16.) The only real difference in the teachings of the parable is that its symbolism is more elaborate.
But there is a value behind its symbolism. While other prophecies speak of these same events, the parable gives more detail, and particularly it clarifies the motives and the emotions of the Lord—who is the instrument behind the “breaking off,” the “scattering,” the “grafting,” and the “regrafting.”
By comparing the Lord to the master of a vineyard who labors with all his might (“But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long”—Jacob 5:47), by showing that he “weeps” at seeing the decay in his vineyard, and by showing his joy as the vineyard begins to produce good fruit, we feel more powerfully the Lord’s joys and sorrows as he labors to make his children fruitful—for most of us have had the experience of anxiously caring for some living thing which we desire to be productive.
We are given the opportunity to look through his eyes to see why there is a tendency for corruption among his children. “Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? … behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves.” (Jacob 5:48; italics added.)
Thus, in addition to giving a clear historical and prophetic overview of God’s dealings with Israelite and gentile, a greater value may come from the emotional impact the parable has upon our hearts. For it does help us to see things through the eyes of a loving and laboring Father in heaven.
The symbolism the Lord uses in this parable to reach our hearts is symbolism he favors very highly. Throughout the scriptures he quite frequently compares himself to a nourisher of living things. Frequently he has spoken of “sowing” or “cultivating” or “reaping,” or other physical labor with his people. Earnestly he speaks of his yearning for good fruit, a deserved reward for his righteous labors. For me, his usage of such imagery becomes more precious when I remember that the Lord was creator of all these things used as symbols—not just a literary artist adapting them to his use.
Reflecting upon this truth leads me to the strong feeling that the vines and trees, the process of nourishing with sun and water, cultivation, the bringing forth of fruit, grafting, harvesting, etc.—all provide physical witnesses that help us comprehend the Lord’s spiritual truths.
There are scriptural references indicating this is so. Among them are Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” [Rom. 1:20] (Italics added.) In Moses 6:63, we learn also that all things were created and made to bear record of Christ.
Believing these things has helped me immensely in appreciating all the symbolism the Lord uses in his scriptures, including that of the tame and wild olive tree. When I sense that from the very beginning the Lord created this physical object or this physical process to teach me this spiritual truth, how then can I not see or not absorb that truth?
By drawing upon our empathies as cultivators and nourishers of living things, the Lord has helped us feel more clearly his labor, his grief, his joy in fruitfulness. It is clear that through the parable he seeks to humble us. That is the result when Nephi expounds the parable to his brothers. That is the desired effect when Paul recites his shorter version to the gentiles:
“Be not highminded, but fear:
“For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.” (Rom. 11:20–21.)
That is the effect the parable ought to have upon all of us. If the parable alone does not “circumcise” our hearts, Jacob’s eloquent pleadings after he expounds it should:
“Cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. …
“For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit? …
“O be wise; what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:5, 7, 12.)