Gender Roles in Building the Kingdom of God – An interpretation of Jacob 5
In the allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5, Zenos explains the scattering and gathering of Israel in the context of a vineyard. Beneath the traditional interpretation of the House of Israel, there is also a parallel of the roles of men and women within the gospel, in building the Kingdom of God and bringing salvation to God’s children. The Priesthood power, as used in ordinances, covenants and connecting us back to God is represented in the nourishment provided by the roots. The work of nurturing and maintaining life, which is a special province of women, is represented by the work of the laborers. Both approaches to nourishing the tree are essential, and both approaches to building the kingdom are vital as well.
In the allegory, the vineyard represents the world, with the individual trees making up the nations of the world. The individual people are represented as fruit, which fruit is the whole purpose of the vineyard, and the Master collects all the fruit safely into the barn each harvest season. His aim is to collect as many righteous souls back to Him as He possibly can, thus, in different seasons He uses different methods and configurations with his husbandry to accomplish His work. In this allegory, a piece of fruit harvested from the natural olive tree that is good is just as precious as a piece of fruit harvested from a reclaimed wild olive tree that is also good. The endless work of grafting onto the desirable root stock and the laborers digging, pruning, watering and dunging all contribute to the health and vitality of the trees. It takes both the water from the ground and the sunlight to the leaves to nourish the trees and produce good fruit. And the Master of the Vineyard carefully orchestrates the entire work.
The roots are the foundation and life-giving force of the tree. They anchor it to the earth and provide access to ground water[i]. No matter which variety of tree, evergreen or deciduous, the roots never die while the branches above them change with the seasons. They provide constant strength and foundation to the tree above. The roots are the most precious part of the tree and in the allegory, the Master wants to save them above all else. The Master says, “It grieveth me that I should lose this tree, wherefore, that perhaps I might preserve the roots thereof that they perish not, that I might preserve them unto myself, I have done this thing” (Jacob 5:11). A few verses later: “Nevertheless, I know that the roots are good, and for mine own purpose I have preserved them” (Jacob 5:36).
Throughout the history of the world, God has at various times permitted righteous men to hold his Priesthood and introduced the saving ordinances to groups of people. When mankind became too wicked to accept them, he preserved the integrity of the roots by removing the power of the Priesthood from the general population. Rather than see His power defiled, he took it away. When they were ready to receive their covenants again, he grafted the people back on to the roots, or restored the Priesthood power again. Like branches being grafted on a certain root stock and then being removed to a different part of the vineyard, the history of apostasy and restoration in the world has been directly influenced by God’s honor of the power of the Priesthood.
In the same way, the ordinances of the Priesthood provide a foundation to all members of the Church and anchor us firmly in Christ’s gospel. Baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, temple endowments and sealings—these covenants are the means by which every soul can return to the Father. They bind us back to God through the power of the Priesthood. Proxy work in temples makes these covenants available to everyone who has lived on the earth.
Covenants and ordinances secure us to God. The specific ordinances are landmarks on the path back to God and eternal life. These ordinances are so powerful that they can make a natural man turn godly, just like they could tame the wild olive branches and make good fruit. President Henry B. Eyring taught “The Savior, through the power of His Atonement, makes possible the change in our hearts we need to make in order to enter holy temples, make covenants we can then keep, and in time live in families forever in celestial glory—home again.[ii]” Gospel covenants allow us access to Jesus Christ’s atonement and grace, which can heal hearts, tame the carnal man, and inspire lifelong goodness. We become fruit worth gathering.
The Priesthood is the force of order and creation in the universe, and God has entrusted that power to worthy covenant-keeping men in order to provide these saving ordinances to all His children. In the role of Priesthood-Holder, a man should administer these ordinances to his family and church congregations so that all people have access to God’s presence. In this work, men assist God and are connected to Him through their own covenants in bearing the Priesthood. When a man receives the Priesthood, he is promised: “And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord; For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.”[iii] Men and God the Father are connected in the work of the salvation of souls.
The roots are vital; however, they too will die if the branches above them die. The sunlight and nourishment of the ground are also essential to preserving the life of the tree. The work of the laborers was to “nourish, dig about, prune and dung” to improve the nutrition the tree needed and give the leaves a better chance to absorb the sunlight[iv]. “Wherefore, dig about them and prune them, and dung them once more for the last time, for the end draweth night. And if it be so that these last grafts shall grow, and bring forth the natural fruit, then shall ye prepare the way for them, that they may grow.” (Jacob 5:64) While the role of the Priesthood holders is to administer in the ordinances of the gospel, the divine role of women is to nurture and give life—thus bringing people into position to receive the covenants of the Gospel provided by the Priesthood. The work of the laborers, tending to the individual branches and enhancing the nutrition above the ground is a representation of the work of nurturing that women do in their lives.
Sister Neill F. Marriott spoke about the special role of women as nurturers. “We build the kingdom of God when we nurture others.” She simply explained. “Mothers literally make room in their bodies to nurture an unborn baby—and hopefully a place in their hears as they raise them—but nurturing is not limited to bearing children. . . I believe that ‘to mother’ means ‘to give life.’ Think of the many ways you give life. It could mean giving emotional life to the hopeless or spiritual life to the doubter. With the help of the Holy Ghost we can create an emotionally healing place for the discriminated against, the rejected, and the stranger. In these tender yet powerful ways, we build the kingdom of God. Sisters, all of us came to earth with these life-giving, nurturing, maternal gifts because that is God’s plan.[v]”
There is a special connection between women and the Savior that is also represented in the efforts of the laborers to get more sunlight to the trees. When they dig and prune and nourish, they are allowing the trees to grow optimally, pruning out overcrowded branches so that the sunlight can filter through the tangled canopy, allowing all the leaves to photosynthesize and the tree to flourish. As the roots were seeking the water for their energy and growth, so the branches needed access to sunlight for their energy. Jesus Christ is the sun[vi], and women work closely with Him in the act of nurturing. Sister Marriott also spoke about this, “What does the Savior do continually? He nurtures, He creates. He encourages growth and goodness . . . The Savior’s creation of the earth, under the direction of His Father was a mighty act of nurturing. He provided a place for us to grow and develop faith in His atoning power . . . All of us need a spiritual and physical place of belonging. We, sisters, of all ages can create this; it is even a holy place[vii].”
Internalizing Our Roles
Understanding the priesthood is part of the curriculum for all auxiliaries, and its influence is felt in meetings, ordinances and homes. It is the vital force in Church government. Lack of worthy priesthood holders and officiators in ordinances causes the work of God’s Kingdom to come to a grinding halt. All apostasies have resulted from a dearth of worthy priesthood holders. Men must magnify that office every day of the week, or we have lost the power of the restoration.
The role of women as nurturers is sometimes regarded as an afterthought, a breadcrumb to the women who resent the exclusion from the Priesthood. However, it is truly half of the work of the kingdom! Sister Julie B. Beck taught, “Latter-day Saint women should understand that no matter how many other people they enlist to help them with their home and children, they cannot delegate their role as the primary nurturer and teacher of their families. Righteous motherhood will always stretch every reserve one has to meet the needs of their families. As a daughter of God who has made covenants with Him, each of you carries the vital and indispensable female half of the responsibility for fulfilling the Lord’s plan.”[viii] The role of women is to “help God’s children understand what is genuine and important in this life. Help them develop the strength to choose paths that will keep them safely on the way to eternal life[ix]”.
Elder Russell M. Nelson said, “We need women who know how to make important things happen by their faith and who are courageous defenders of morality and families in a sin-sick world. Women who know how to call upon the powers of heaven to protect and strengthen children and families. . . Married or single, you sisters possess distinctive capabilities and special intuition you have received as gifts from God. We brethren can not duplicate your unique influence.”
In the parable of the vineyard, before the final round of grafts and laboring, the problem with the trees is assessed—“Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?” (Jacob 5:48). It is a problem with both the roots and the branches; the roots can’t keep up with the growth on top, the branches are overwhelming the roots.
In our time, there are definite parallels to the unprecedented growth within the church. The ordinances of baptism and confirmation are being spread around liberally, increasing the growth of the church, but without adequate care and nurturing that these new members need, many congregations are expanding faster than the structure of the church can provide. Women are an essential part of fellowshipping, teaching, and building the church. Of course, men are also responsible for fellowshipping; retention of members is not the sole responsibility of women, but women are specially and divinely suited to the work. New members, inactive members, struggling or sensitive members of the church—all need the spiritual and social nurturing and mentoring that women can provide. The future of the church, just like the future of the vineyard, depends on the work of the laborers keeping pace with the growth of the tree.
The roles of men and women in life and in the church are not so tidy as simply: Priesthood and Nurturing; all women benefit from the Priesthood ordinances, as do men. And men can be as nurturing and inclusive as women. There are areas of significant overlap, but in general, God has given us gifts and natures that are complementary to each other. We must discover those gifts personally, and then magnify them to benefit all those around us. Whether we are administering the sacrament by the power of the priesthood, or have invited a neighbor to attend sacrament meeting and then sat by her to explain what is going on and helped her feel at peace in a new place, both tasks are essential. They are cooperative. Men and Women in the church must work together, harder than we have ever worked, with respect for each others roles and with assurance that our contribution matters and is essential to the work of building the kingdom of God.
[i] Water is a symbol of God the Father. 1 John 5:7-8 explains: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.” Matching up image to deity, we have Spirit to Spirit, Blood to the Word (Jesus), and Water to the Father. The roots connect the tree to water and the power of the Priesthood connects us with God the Father. Even differences in temple covenants between men and women allude to a connection between men and God, and women and Christ.
[ii] Henry B. Eyring, Families Can Be Together. Ensign, June 2015. Found at: https://www.lds.org/liahona/2015/06/families-can-be-together-forever?cid=HP14FPM&lang=eng
[iii] D&C 84:35-39
[iv] The Sun is a symbol of Christ, who is the light of the world. In a presidency like the Godhead, there is unity in purpose, while each entity in the presidency attends to different tasks and responsibilities. Looking to the roles of the Father and Christ for guidance in our marriages is instructional.
[v] Neill F. Marriott, “What Shall We Do?”. Ensign, May 2016.
[vi] D&C 88:7
[vii] Neill F. Marriott, “What Shall We Do?”. Ensign, May 2016.
[viii] Julie B. Beck, “Unlocking the Door to the Blessings of Abraham.” CES Devotional, March 2, 2008. Found at https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2008-03-0020-unlocking-the-door-to-the-blessings-of-abraham?lang=eng#p3s:1552820&p3e:1584330
[ix] Thomas S. Monson, “Learn of Me”. Ensign, May 2016.