Let’s review the eleven previous mandates, now that we’re at the final, twelfth, mandate.
- Have faith in God and fear Him.
- Be simple and innocent; avoid slander; be generous in giving.
- Speak only the truth.
- Guard your chastity and honor the sanctity of marriage.
- Be patient and resist anger.
- Trust the righteous spirit; don’t trust evil spirits.
- Fear God, not the devil.
- Restrain yourself from doing evil; don’t restrain yourself from doing good.
- Don’t doubt, but pray with complete confidence.
- Don’t grieve because of doubt, only grieve because of sin.
- Discern between godly and false prophets, and ignore the false.
And finally, now, #12: put away wicked desires, and be clothed in good desires. Desires are difficult to tame, the angel explains to Hermas, so the bad ones must be nipped in the bud before they have a chance to do their damage. Hermas asks the obvious question of what counts as bad desires, and the angel obliges.
Foremost of all is the desire for another’s wife or husband, and after extravagance, and many useless dainties and drinks, and many other foolish luxuries…
It’s not too surprising to see lust at the top of the list here, but the other three may be somewhat startling. Extravagance, useless dainties and drinks, and foolish luxuries… what counts as these? Clearly it’s getting at the issue of stewardship, not wasting our money on frivolous things in order to be generous in our giving. We’ve already seen that Hermas advocates a radical perspective of giving, not even allowing for discrimination in to whom we give, leaving the good use of our charity entirely in the hands of others. I feel like a consistent reading of Hermas would point in the direction that we should be living in poverty (or near poverty), and even “middle-class” comforts could be considered extraneous. This would be a very serious application of some of Jesus’ teachings about the poor.
On the other hand, while these are important points to take to heart, there are other considerations about managing money and wealth. Hermas takes this hot topic in one way, but the biblical data is a little more broad than that. In fact, even Hermas is primarily denouncing the desire for luxuries, rather than than the luxuries themselves. So it’s one thing for me to enjoy a glass of scotch now and then, but it would be wrong of me to desire scotch as if it were an integral part of my life. Where do you draw the line? Hermas wisely suggests that we should err on the side of simplicity.
The text, here, goes on to wrap up this part of the book, reflecting upon the whole giving of these twelve mandates. Keeping them is the way to life. Not keeping them is the way to death. Harsh words, in league with much of 1 John, but I can’t help but feel like Hermas is trying to set out the new law of Christ in the wrong way – a way that seems to downplay the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
But then things get complicated. Hermas quite understandably remarks “I do not know if these commandments can be kept by man, because they are exceedingly hard.” The angel is none too pleased with this question, and first insists that these mandates must be followed, and then explains that they can be followed. The angel appeals to the kingly role of the human race in creation as a source of strength as well as the Spirit of God within the believer as a source of strength. In more theological terms, the imago Dei is a significant feature of the human person, suggesting that we are incredibly powerful simply by nature of our creation in God’s image. And further, those who have the Holy Spirit indwelling them are even more powerfully enabled to keep the commandments of God. If God is for us, who could be against us?
So the angel’s very high ethical standards for Christians are accompanied by a similarly high optimism in human ability. But it’s not a Pelagian belief that our wills alone are enough to make us holy people, it’s a high view of human cooperation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some people might call it semi-Pelagian, but it’s consistent with at least some of the biblical witness.
Continuing his encouragement, the angel repeats some earlier teaching that the devil is powerless against a truly faithful Christian, and that even he himself, the angel of repentance, will help us to defeat the devil in this spiritual war! He includes an interesting illustration of wine jars. Full wine jars are good and trustworthy, but partly-full wine jars are prone to go bad more quickly, so a cellar-keeper will constantly be checking the partly-full jars to make sure they’re still good. In the same way, the devil will keep checking on partly-faithful Christians just in case he can find an opportunity to ruin them. But the truly faithful Christian is too strong for him to bother with. The comforting side of this teaching is that it highlights the protection we have in Christ against the spiritual forces of evil.
But the troubling side of this idea is that faith is likened to a liquid that we can have in different measures. I’m not saying I disagree with the concept, exactly, but it does raise some irksome questions such as ‘how much faith is enough?’ and ‘how do I know if I’m full of faith yet or not?’ Part of the solution to addressing this issue is to return yet again to the concept in this book that doubt & faith tend to be used in terms of trust in God. We certainly do trust God in different ways and at different levels, and many of us fluctuate in that from time to time. In a sense, it’s never really tested or proven until something bad happens, so it’s no wonder that Peter told us not to be surprised if and when those trials do come up.
So that’s the last of the commandments, or mandates, given to Hermas. Next come the ten parables, or similitudes. They vary in length, so if you’re following along these posts in real time, you can anticipate when each post will come by looking at my lectionary. We’re currently in the 27th week of Ordinary Time.