This parable was a little more difficult for me to understand, and I also had to consult a second translation to clarify some of the descriptions. Hermas is shown two flocks of sheep with one shepherd. The first flock was eating luxuriously and merrily skipping all over the place, and the shepherd was doing the same. The second flock was frisky and well-fed but not really jumping around.
The angel explains that the sheep which are skipping around represent people who “have turn themselves away from God for ever, and have delivered themselves over to luxuries and deceits. That shepherd, the angel of deceit, has won them over completely. The sheep which aren’t skipping around, just eating luxuriously, represent people who have also delivered themselves over luxuries and deceits, but have not blasphemed against God, and may yet be saved. For these, there is another shepherd, the angel of punishment, who takes them, throws them into a valley of thorns, and beats and whips them for a time.
First of all, it’s interesting to note the descriptions. The merry handsome shepherd is actually a demon – the angel of deceit. Sin is attractive and pleasing to the eye! The angel of punishment – who’s described as “one of the just angels” – is savage in appearance, armed with a staff and whip, and generally a frightening figure. Yet, he’s from God, working God’s will for the betterment of God’s people. Being cleansed from sin is not a pleasant process, but it is necessary to enter into God’s presence.
Following on this point, Hermas asks what kinds of punishments people will receive for their sins. The angel explains, “tortures are such as occur during life. For some are punished with losses, others with want, others with sickness of various kinds, and others with all kinds of disorder and confusion...” But these punishments are temporary, because such people are then turned over to the angel of repentance (the angel who has been teaching Hermas all this time) for training and strengthening in faith, “and for the rest of the days of their life they are subject to the Lord with pure hearts, and are successful in all their undertakings, obtaining from the Lord everything they ask; and they glorify the Lord…”
This final description clears up one big question that was looming ever-larger until now: when does all this take place? It was beginning to sound like Hermas was being introduced to ‘purgation’ as a real experience after death, but now it’s made clear that this takes place during life. Thus, this was not meant to be taken in a physical-literal sense (unsurprisingly for this genre anyway), but as a spiritual reality: when we engage in sins of luxury and are deceived by them, we suffer because of them, and eventually have to repent.
Chapters 4 and 5 get confusing again, though: Hermas asks how long these times of punishment last. The angel seems annoyed that he has to explain this to him, but he obliges. The time that someone spends in luxury and deceit is equivalent to the time spent in punishment and torture. However, because the memory of punishment and torture is so much stronger than the memory of luxury (just like how bad news always trumps good news), one day of punishment and torture is akin to a year! “While tortured and punished, therefore, for a whole year, he remembers at last his luxury and deceit, and knows that on their account he suffers evil.”
Finally, the question is asked, “what kinds of luxury are hurtful?” The answer is not what one might expect; this is not about riches, wealth, and good stewardship!
Every act of a man which he performs with pleasure is an act of luxury; for the sharp-tempered man, when gratifying his tendency, indulging in luxury; and the adulterer, and the drunkard, and the back-biter, and the liar, and the covetous man, and the thief, and he who does things like these, gratifies his peculiar propensity, and in so doing indulges in luxury.
So these are not simply about material luxuries, but indulging any sinful desire. One might ask if there are good luxuries, then, and the angel affirms:
And there are also acts of luxury which save men; for many who do good indulge in luxury, being carried away by their own pleasure: this luxury, however, is beneficial to the servants of God, and gains life for such a man…
In summary, this is kind of like the inverse of the 8th Mandate wherein Hermas received the commandment to restrain himself from doing evil, and not to restrain himself from doing good. What this similitude adds to that mandate is the idea that, beyond doing good and evil, people can luxuriate in them, which is basically an intensification of the goodness of evilness of the work (as well as an intensification of the spiritual benefits and punishments).