This is a longer parable, 7 chapters in length. It starts out with Hermas praying early in the morning; he’s observing a “station,”which seems to be a set time for fasting and prayer. When he explains this to the angel, the angel scoffs and tells him that true fasting is much more: do no evil in your life and serve God with a pure heart; keep his commandments, walking in his precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God.” Some may argue that this is beyond the biblical definition of fasting, but in actuality the angel is really just simplifying Isaiah’s much more expansive definition of a true fast unto the Lord.
The angel then offers a parable to illustrate what this true fasting can look like. A master instructs a slave to stake out a vineyard while he’s on a trip abroad. The reward for this task will be the slave’s freedom. The slave does this, but also weeds the vineyard to make it more beautiful and fruitful. When the master returns, he’s very pleased with this, so he not only grants the slave his freedom, but adopts him as a co-heir alongside his son! After the celebratory feast, the master gives the now-freed slave a set of dishes from the table. The ex-slave then keeps enough for himself and gives the rest to the other slaves, which impresses the master and his son all the more.
In unraveling this parable, the angel has much to say. First of all, he assures that keeping God’s commandments is enough to attain eternal life, but going beyond does gain “more abundant glory” for oneself. This is not the same as ‘works of supererogation’ which is the idea of gaining merit from God based upon good works beyond God’s command, though it is very similar. There is the reality that we’re judged according to works, but in tension with the reality that even doing what’s commanded of us still leaves us as unworthy servants. Salvation is not earned.
That being said, the angel still have some practical advice about how to fast in this truer God-honoring way. When fasting from food, one could count up the money saved by not eating, and give that amount to the needy! The way I would summarize this is that simply fasting from food is a spiritual discipline – it can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on our attitudes as we do it. But if we rightly use a fast from food as a chance to pursue good works such as combating evil and giving to the poor, then we’re actually doing a good work. A discipline is a potential for self-improvement, but a good work is real.
Hermas wants to get more out of this parable, though, and the angel obliges:
- The vineyard field represents the world,
- the master of the vineyard is God (the Father),
- the master’s son is the Holy Spirit,
- the slave is Jesus Christ,
- the vines are God’s people,
- the stakes holding up the vines are angels,
- the weeds are the sins of God’s people,
- the dishes that the freed slave shared are the commands of Christ,
- the master & sons friends are the angels created at the beginning,
- and the master’s absence is the time before his great appearing.
The implications are interesting, and some more specific theological concepts are addressed in response to Hermas’ immediate question – why Christ appears in this parable as a slave. What follows is clearly Trinitarian theology, if rather muddled from our post-Nicean perspective.
The image of Christ being a slave in this parable is not to highlight him as a slave, but his “great power and might” resulting from his work. God the Father made the vineyard (His people), appointed angels to keep it (them), and sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to look after it. Jesus, then, purged the people of their sins, “having suffered many trials and undergone many labors,” and thereby showed them the way of life by passing on the law of God. Indeed, Jesus does give us a new law which sums up the old covenant law, but the Bible says we’re no longer slaves to the law, but slaves of Christ. Hermas here seems to be making use of language that Paul might easily take issue with.
Those are confusions primarily in wording, and can be understood in a biblical framework. What follows (in 6:4-8), however, is trickier to work out. Jesus, as a “holy, pre-existent Spirit” was made to dwell in flesh. The Holy Spirit indwelt him, and he lived in cooperation with the Spirit. This pleased God the Father, so Jesus was accepted in his human form, which allows other humans with the Holy Spirit (that’d be us) to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and arrive at the same destination: the presence of God in the eternal kingdom. So the language of these verses can be read within a trinitarian framework, as I have just done, but simply taking the document at face value, it may be read that Jesus was a Spirit just like the Holy Spirit, and then he underwent an experiment, becoming human, and his success earned him equality with the Holy Spirit. But I would argue that we should not try to read this book simply at face value; Hermas wrote this in (or near) Rome, where he lived. There was a healthy thriving Christian presence there, with good teaching and a strong (if recent) heritage of faith. I’m pretty sure Hermas would have had access to the orthodox teachings on God, such as found in the Apostles’ Creed, which was probably formulated around this same period of time.
The seventh and final chapter closes this similitude with an exhortation to keep the commandments of God and not to defile the flesh with sin. This would be pretty standard stock by now except for its elaboration on the relationship between the Spirit and the flesh. The idea of defiling or darkening the Holy Spirit within us has been addressed before, so I won’t explore that touchy subject here. What is helpful here is the holistic view of the human being that is described:
Keep this flesh pure and stainless, that the Spirit which inhabits it may bear witness to it, and your flesh may be justified…. If you defile your flesh, you will also defile the Holy Spirit, and if you defile your flesh [and Spirit] you will not live.
Yes, one could argue with the idea of salvation (and/or the indwelling of the Spirit) being something that one can lose, but the primary point being made here is that we are whole beings, body and spirit. What we do to one part of ourselves, we do to our whole selves. I’ve preached on this before in the context of praying for peoples’ holistic needs, using Psalm 13 as an example. A New Testament verse along similar lines would be Paul’s rhetorical question, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
This pertains to good things like resisting sin and focusing on serving God while we’re fasting, as well as to bad things like the effects of our sinful thoughts and deeds – our bodies and spirits both receive the effects. And thus it reflects on the Holy Spirit’s reputation, and we either honor or dishonor Him. Although I, personally, would not be as quick as Hermas to say that the Spirit will depart from us if we dishonor Him greatly, I still think it an extremely serious offense to dishonor the One who is perfect.