Hah! Just when I was settling into the opinion that Hermas has a strong bias in favor of the poor, this similitude comes along and completely turns it around.
This is a parable of the tree and the vine (an elm tree, according to the translation I’ve been reading). Elm trees don’t bear fruit, and vines do. But vines do better when they have things to grow on, like trees; their fruit at ground level tends to be rubbish – small and quickly rotten. So these vines and trees have a symbiotic relationship that is metabiositically commensal. In other words, one benefits from the other without doing it any harm. And in a sense, one can say that the elm is bearing fruit, on account of its support for the vine.
This is a parable of rich and poor people. The angel explains to Hermas:
The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; and he offers very few confessions and intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. But when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him in his necessities, believing that what he does to the poor man will be able to find its reward with God … then the rich man helps the poor in all things without hesitation; and the poor man, being helped by the rich, intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for him who bestows gifts upon him.
I’m tempted to say that this is a bit of a caricature; not all rich people are weak in their prayers. But the idea of riches being a distraction brings up a good point; managing a lot of money, assets, property, or tenants simply takes up a lot of time. The poor, though, with minimal distractions in life, has a lot more time to give to prayer. The potential is a lot higher. Of course, not every rich Christian is weak in prayer, and not every poor Christian is a prayer warrior, but that’s what the potentials are.
Earlier, we read that the desire for luxuries is a sin that must be curbed. Now in light of this similitude we see that wealth itself is not sinful; the rich do in fact have a place in God’s kingdom. What I assumed in that entry is what Hermas now teaches here – that the purpose of being rich is to give to those in need and support them.
What this sets forth, then, is the idea that, when it comes to money (and wealth in general), we should understand it as part of our vocation – our calling from God. God makes some people rich in money so that they can help the poor “in all things without hesitation,” and some people poor in money so they can pray for the rich, “intercede for him, giving thanks to God for him who bestow gifts upon him.” Both discharge their service to God in this way.
What’s missing, though, is the middle class. There was hardly any middle class at all back then. In fact, the ascendancy of the middle class (in terms of population demographics) is very modern phenomenon. So what are we middle-class folks to do? One important thing to take into account is that we often mislabel ourselves. I often think of myself as poor, because my wife and I only have part-time jobs, I’ve got a nice pile of student loans to repay, and car problems keep draining our meager savings. But then I look from a more global perspective and realize: we both have our own vehicle, we have a nice little apartment that we can actually afford on our part-time incomes (for now), we’re able to buy food, pay for internet, and a dinner date every couple weeks or so. This is far more than can be said for millions of people around the world who have no home and no regular food (let alone income, running water, and electricity). We, on the other hand, are self-sustaining, and therefore middle class, despite the temptation to think of ourselves as poor.
At the other end of the middle class spectrum is the ever-difficult question, when should people count themselves as rich? This is probably easier than we think. What percentage of one’s income goes to the basic necessities of life, versus the ‘basic comforts’ versus outright luxury? Owning a refurbished ’69 Chevy isn’t a sin by any means – in fact I think it’d be pretty awesome – but it’s a pretty good sign that one is rich. Another complication is that many middle-class Americans try to live as though they were rich, and grossly overspend, and live in far more debt than they ever should have. That is more clearly under the category of “don’t desire useless extravagances” in the aforementioned 12th Mandate.
Anyway, all of this aside is to say that many middle-class people are actually much closer to rich than to poor, and can function as the rich in this parable’s setup of rich and poor. After all, anyone with internet access these days has enough distraction to ruin a good prayer life if one’s not careful. And just as the widow can give her mite, so can people of every income bracket assist those less fortunate than themselves. And if my wife and I, despite our lower-middle-class incomes, can faithfully tithe 10%, how much more can people give who have actual salaries!