This parable, although one of the longest in the book (11 chapters!), is fairly simple in its elements. Hermas is shown an enormous willow tree under which all of God’s people gather and take shade. An angel, later revealed to be Archangel Michael, is there, snipping off two-foot cuttings from the tree and giving one to everyone. When he’s finished, and everyone has their own, the tree is still in good shape, looking nice and healthy. After an unspecified period of time, everyone is summoned back, and their cuttings are inspected. The twigs are in various conditions – from still green, budding, and bearing fruit, to cracked and withered, and everything in between.
The angel (of repentance, not Michael) explains to Hermas that this is a parable of how judgment for believers is carried out, for the tree represents “the law of God that was given to the whole world; and this law is the Son of God, proclaimed to the ends of the earth.” It is not specified if this the end-times judgment or a judgment through the course of each individual’s life, so we can’t apply this directly to eschatology, only indirectly. Anyway, there are many different illustrations of the condition of the cuttings returned, so I’ll address them from healthiest to least healthy, which strikes me as a more logical order than how the text sets them out.
First the cuttings that remained green, budded, and bore fruit represent martyrs – people who suffered (and probably died) “on account of the law,” which is Christ. When they returned their branches, the angels rejoiced over them, they received palm leaf crowns, and they got to go straight into a tower. This tower was never explained, but it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s the tower which was depicted earlier in this book which represented the completed Church, or, perhaps, “the Church Triumphant.”
Next are the cuttings that remained green and budded, but did not bear fruit. These are those who were “afflicted on account of the law, but have not suffered…” This is why I presume that “suffer” here ultimately means killed. (Furthermore, the Greek word translated as “suffer” is πασχω which is is the same word for Christ’s ‘passion.’) These folks didn’t receive crowns, but got to go straight into the tower.
Next, the cuttings that were returned as green as they originally were (but no better), represent “the venerable, and the just, and they who have walked carefully in a pure heart, and have kept the commandments of the Lord.” They also got to enter the tower with the previous groups.
By contrast, everyone else, whose descriptions follow, had to have their cuttings replanted and watered by the angel of repentance to see if thy improved. This represents how God gives people who are already believers opportunity to repent when they’re living (or have lived) out of step with their calling as Christians. Most repent, given the opportunity, but let’s continue to look at each group and observe their particular conditions.
Those whose cuttings were green with withered and cracked ends represent those who’ve always been good Christians but have indulged in small desires and found some faults in others. Most of them repented quickly when prompted, and entered the tower right away. But some remained doubtful, which caused more dissension, but “with difficulty will any of them perish.”
Those whose cuttings were green but cracked represent those who have been good Christians, but struggled with desire for power, authority, fame, and other such rivalries. Pretty much all of them repent quickly when prompted by the angel of repentance, and live in the tower, though if their rivalries relapse, they may be kicked out. (This is the only mentioning of being kicked out of the tower, but enough to make me strongly suspect that this whole parable is not specifically addressing the end-times judgment, for the eternal kingdom of heaven won’t be plagued with sin anymore.)
Those whose cuttings were two-thirds green and one-third withered represent those who’ve denied God in many ways (presumably beyond just their worldly affairs). Repentance is still within their reach if they don’t dilly-dally, for if they “remain in their pleasures” they’ll “work to themselves death” (end of chapter 8).
Those whose cuttings were half-green and half-withered represent those whose lives are immersed in worldly business, and don’t cling to the fellowship of the saints. So they’re half alive, half dead, essentially serving two masters. Many of them repent at the opportunity, and enter the tower, but some fall away at the end, blaspheming God by idolizing their worldly affairs. If they’re particularly slow at repenting, they’ll end up “within the walls” – the tower’s courtyard.
Those whose cuttings were two-thirds withered and one-third green represent those were faithful but became wealthy and enjoyed their new-found status in the world, living with and like the unbelievers. For many of them, their faith never quite died, though, so many of them repent and enter the tower, but pride prevents others, making them end up like the heathen.
Those whose cuttings were half-withered and cracked represent those who are wavering, “for they neither live, nor are they dead.” They slander each other, and are causing division in the Church. They can still repent, though many of them will end up in the courtyard around the tower rather than inside the tower itself.
Those whose cuttings were withered with just a hint of green left represent those who believed in Christ but continued living in sin. They never turned away from God, weren’t ashamed of his name, and enjoyed fellowship with other Christians. So when asked to repent, they did so “unhesitatingly,” some even going on to become martyrs, and all entering into the tower.
Those whose cuttings were withered and not cracked represent hypocrites, introducers of strange doctrines,” and people who subvert God’s people – especially by means of preventing others from repenting (or tricking them into thinking they didn’t need to repent). They have hope of repentance, and many will, but not all. Some will even make it into the tower.
Finally, those whose cuttings were withered (or dry) and cracked are the apostates and traitors of the Church, who blasphemed God and were ashamed of Him. Given the chance to repent, none of them did, because they did not belong to God at all.
All this emphasis on the human work of repenting makes salvation sound very Arminian in nature, affirming human free will almost to the expense of God’s sovereignty. A brief shout-out, however, is given to a more Calvinistic theology in chapter 6 when the angel explains:
to them whose heart [God] saw would become pure, and obedient to Him, He gave power to repent with their whole hearts. But to them whose deceit and wickedness He perceived, and saw that they intended to repent hypocritically, He did not grant repentance, lest they should again profane His name.
So there is definitely an interplay between human responsibility (to repent) and God’s sovereignty in foreknowledge, or even predestination. This is a tension found in the New Testament too, of course, so I wouldn’t worry too much about “trying to identify “whose side The Shepherd of Hermas is on.
One curiosity that was not explained in this parable is that there appears to be three final destinations for people: one is the tower, which I assume to be the completed Church, one is “with the heathen,” which is whatever damnation/the second death entails, and then this middle space called “the grounds,” which seem to be around the tower and “within the walls.” Is this a two-tiered picture of heaven? Peaking ahead, it seems like the 9th similitude (totaling a whopping 33 chapters in length) may shed some light on this question, as it seems to be returning to the image of the Church as a tower…