For the most part, this is more of a final summary exhortation than a discreet parable, but it does draw on previous parable language. The short summary is that Hermas (and all Christians) is called to conduct himself “manfully,” which is an archaic way in English of saying ‘virtuously.’
This final similitude opens with Hermas at home writing down everything he has seen and heard, and the messenger who first introduced him to the angel of repentance rejoins him. Hermas is assured that the angel of repentance will protect him and his household. Furthermore, Hermas is instructed to spread what he has been shown and taught, encouraging his fellow Christians to live virtuous godly lives worthy of their calling.
Using the language of a previous vision and parable, Hermas is sent the virgins to dwell with him. At first I thought this was just a symbolic gesture showing that Hermas was a righteous man, worthy of having the virgins (who symbolize various virtues) live in his house. But then I realized another dimension to this: he wasn’t being asked to earn these virtues, or work his way up to them, but God put them into his life! God is the one who sanctifies us, and equips us to live godly and righteous lives. It’s not a sin-proof gift, though; it must be exercised, much like Paul’s armor of God metaphor.
Hermas was warned, after all, that if he didn’t practice good works, he’d be neglecting them, and they’d leave. This is not unlike the immense wisdom that Solomon received from God. He was made strong in this virtue, and he exercised it, but did not practice good works, and thus his great virtue of wisdom was rendered useless. God did not take away Solomon’s wisdom; it just wasn’t put to godly use. And so it is with any of these other virtues – simply being a virtuous person and having positive personality traits is not salvific. Rather, in practicing good works, we exercise and realize (literally, we ‘make real’) the inner faith which is what God’s actually looking for.
For the most part, that’s what this entire book has been about – the critical importance of Christian living. But there’s a hint here of another theme, along with the exhortation to virtue:
Do good works, therefore, ye who have received from the Lord; lest, while ye delay to do them, the building of the tower be finished, and you be rejected from the edifice: there is now no other tower a-building. For on your account was the work of building suspended. Unless, then, you make haste to do rightly, the tower will be completed and you will be excluded.
Throughout the tower-themed visions and parables the question of timing has been an ongoing question. One of the tempting interpretations was that the evaluation and second chance to repent aspects of the story was death, thus propping up some form of a doctrine of Purgatory. But finally, in the above quote, the timing is made more clear: the pause in the building and chance for repentance is the Church age. From our perspective, this is a little weird, because the building has been on pause for nearly two thousand years, now. But if we remember that this book was written very early – shortly after 100AD perhaps – then the idea of a pause makes more sense, for there was a very high level of expectation back then regarding the return of Christ. The idea of living in the end-times, understood from the writings Jewish prophecy and John’s Apocalypse, was very real to them.
But just because the Church has been waiting for so long, doesn’t mean we’re to slack on the watch. In terms of individual salvation, delaying our repentance is still a bad idea. Jesus’ fundamental underlying message has not changed: “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” At the heart of The Shepherd of Hermas, the message remains exactly this.