This seems to be an odd section of The Shepherd of Hermas to me. It’s not quite a parable of its own, but moreso a continuation of the previous one. In this similitude, the previously-mentioned angel of punishment has been visiting Hermas’ household, and he asks the angel of repentance (his guide throughout this book) what sins he has committed that he has brought this on himself. The angel replies that it’s not so much because of Hermas, but because of his household that the angel is afflicting him & them. He asks (understandably) why the angel must afflict him, specifically, and the answer is that he’s the head of his household. If he suffers, all suffer, but if he’s comfortable, they’re all comfortable.
In our individualist-focused culture today, this can seem very strange and unfair. This idea of corporate headship, however, is not without biblical example. In Romans 5, Paul makes the same sort of argument – through Adam all have sinned, and through Christ all may be forgiven. Punishment, sin, forgiveness, salvation, and so on, are all personal realities, but they’re experienced (and even reached) in a corporate setting.
If this was all that was said on the matter, that’d be alright, but as it is, the angel goes on to explain further teachings about suffering which seems to reflect a very Roman Catholic line of reasoning, to the point of heresy from a Protestant perspective. For, when Hermas points out that his family has repented, the angel acknowledges this fact, and adds:
do you think, however, that the sins of those who repent are remitted? Not altogether, but he who repents must torture his own soul, and be exceedingly humble in all his conduct, and be afflicted with many kinds of affliction; and if he endure the afflictions that come upon him, He who created all things, and endued them with power, will assuredly have compassion, and will heal him; and this will He do when He sees the heart of every penitent pure from every evil thing: and it is profitable for you and for your house to suffer affliction now.
Although I do find fault with this myself, I desire, in a spirit of charity, to point out what good I can. What is going on here is not a wholesale rejection of God’s mercy for sinners who repent, but a carefully nuanced view of human cooperation with God. Remember, many of the mandates (commandments) addressed topics along these lines: restraining oneself from doing evil, discerning good & evil spirits, not grieving the Holy Spirit, and so on. It can be tempting to view this book as a dour picture of hard work that Christians have to go through in order ‘stay saved,’ but in reality it’s an optimistic picture of what we, being filled with the Holy Spirit, are truly capable of being like! This is part of the Church’s earliest ‘holiness movement,’ so to speak, well before any Methodists came along!
So perhaps the most positive way to read this quote is to discern between the guilt of sin, and the penalty of sin. Repentance removes the guilt of sin – God freely justifies the sinner by grace through faith. However, that sin still has a penalty which is carried out through suffering, which is something that both Peter and Paul may be suggesting at certain points in their writings. This, however, is a very much a Roman Catholic perspective of the subject, and most Protestant thinkers reject such a distinction between sin’s guilt and penalty or will say that the penalty was paid for in full on the cross of Christ. But what, then, does Paul mean when he says we’ve been crucified with Christ, or Jesus when he says we must take up our own cross with him? I bring up these arguments not to make a decisive argument, but to recognize the tension between these differing viewpoints; this is not the time to make such weighty theological judgment calls.
Whatever the theological underpinnings of The Shepherd of Hermas may be, we can come away from this similitude with a better understanding of “why bad things happen to good people,” for the effects of sin spill over beyond mere individuals and stains everyone and everything around! As Christians, we know that judgment begins with us, but we also are comforted, like Hermas, in the knowledge that our sufferings are only temporary, and that God will make all things right in the end.