Let us return to the account given by Hermas, the second century brother of Pius I, who was given several visions of the nature of the Church and its relationship to personal sin. The last and longest segment of the Shepherd of Hermas is that of the parables. While some of them are quite lengthy, the first six are pithy and so we shall consider them here.
"You know that you, who are servants of God, are dwelling in a foreign land; for your city is far from this city," begins the first vision. This vision contrasts our true home, the Church and heaven, with the city in which we currently dwell. These cities are not St. Augustine's City of God and the City of the Pagans, which offer two competing visions of reality in a Christianizing society. The angel's parable to Hermas reflects the displacement of the Christian, who must live indefinitely in a strange place before he is called to his Maker at the end of his days. Because of the transitory nature of things, he must not fall too deeply in love with the place of his temporary residence. Instead, he must cleave to the laws and customs of his real homeland, even if he cannot touch it yet, for adapting to the laws and customs of the city of residence rejects the laws and customs of the real homeland city.
"For the sake of thy fields and the rest of thy possessions wilt thou altogether repudiate thy law, and walk according to the law of this city? Take heed, lest it be inexpedient to repudiate the law; for if thou shouldest desire to return again to thy city, thou shall surely not be received, and thou shalt be shut out from it. Take heed therefore; as dwelling in a strange land prepare nothing more for thyself but a competency which is sufficient for thee, and make ready that, whensoever the master of this city may desire to cast thee out for thine opposition to his law, thou mayest go forth from his city and depart into thine own city and use thine own law joyfully, free form all insult."
Hermas sees an elm tree and a grapevine while ambling through a field and takes the time to meditate on them. The angelic shepherd asks Hermas upon what he meditates. Hermas replies that the vine and elm are "excellently suited the one to the other." The shepherd explains that the grapevine yields much fruit while the elm tree yields none. The imagery reminds the faithful to the dicta of Our Lord "I am the vine and you are the branches" and "By their fruits you shall know them." Contrary to instinct, this parable does not primarily concern either of these two things. Rather, Our Lord's warning that "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" more readily relates to the shepherd's words. The shepherd explains that a grapevine cannot yield fruit alone. It must climb so that its fruit may bud, grow, and hang well. So, the grapevine latches on to the tree and climbs its sides, giving fruit on its branches which cling to the tree. The same is true with the rich and the poor. The rich concern themselves with the things of the world, with wealth and luxury, making their efforts before God scant. However, the rich can use their resources to help the poor, who are close to God in their poverty and desperation. If the rich man helps the poor man with all his effort, the poor man might make gratuitous intercession before God for his helper and so aid in the rich man's salvation. "Blessed are the rich," the shepherd says, "who understand also that they are enriched from the Lord. For they that have this mind shall be able to do some good work." Such was the mind of many well off saints such as Thomas More and kings like Louis IX. Salvation is not solitary, but an act of cooperation.
The shepherd shows Hermas withered winter trees, naked and without leaves. Hermas is told that some of these trees represent the unjust while others symbolize the righteous. The angelic figure explains to Hermas that in this world "neither the just nor the sinners are distinguishable, but they are all alike." This is healthy warning for those who judge the souls of other people or sanctimoniously lecture others on their actions or even who suggest the damnation of particular people. In the end, only God knows whether or not a tree has truly withered.
Suddenly, some of the trees begin to bud. "By their fruits you shall know them" suddenly springs to relevance in the mind of the devout reader. These trees are in the summer of God's radiant mercy. They show signs of life here and will spring permanently in the life to come. Sinners and the "Gentiles"—a generic term for those who do not wish to know God in the Shepherd—will burn, however, on account of their lack of repentance. Bear fruit and abstain from thinking too deep;y about past sins, which leaves one distracted about one's own business and unable to serve the Lord.
Hermas is fasting and keeping a vigil of prayer when the angelic shepherd again appears to him and condescends Hermas for his vanity in fasting. Fasting should not be mechanical abstention, but an effort to maximize one's devotion. He recommends that Hermas fast on bread and water, giving the money saved from the day's food to the poor. Unable to grasp the greater concepts behind fasting, the shepherd tells Hermas a fifth parable. A vintner leaves on a trip and gives charge of his estate to a servant with the command to do nothing to the estate, only to return it in the condition in which the master left it. The servant maintains the fences, but notices overgrowth in the vines and other defects on the property. He takes the time to clean the estate and improve the plantings. Upon return, the renewed condition of the property elates the master, who frees the servants and makes him a co-heir with his own son to his estate. The other people of the estate are elated and share the servant's joy.
Primitive Trinitarianism underlies this parable about fasting. The shepherd explains to obdurately dense Hermas that the property is the world, the master is God, the fence is the angels, the vines are the people within the world, and the servant is the Son of God. Christ was given reign over the world by His Father and did not keep it as it was, but rather redeemed it by His blood and infused it with a new life in Him. He did not please the Father by following a set pattern, but rather by doing the most on behalf of Creation as He could. How was he able to do this, Hermas asks. The shepherd replies that the "Holy pre-existent Spirit, which created the whole world," imparted to the servant a perfect holiness and purity by dwelling in him. The pre-existence of the Holy Spirit and the notion that the Spirit made the world would rattle those scholars who think Christ's divinity and the Trinity were Constantinian concoctions. Genesis speaks of the spirit of God hovering over the black, un-molded wasteland of the world, but does not assign the "spirit" a personhood which creates. Hermas does and goes further by making the Spirit the agent of the servant's renewal of the vineyard and hence of Christ's renewal of Creation. The characterization of the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son may well originate in second century Rome. This parable does not fit that characterization perfectly, but then again this parable is about fasting.
Our last parable today is one of shepherds. The angelic shepherd shows Hermas several shepherds tending different flocks of sheep. Some sheep are playful and frolic in the fields. Others sit in one place and eat. Others still are caught in thorns and suffer greatly. This last herd is the the one guided by a just shepherd, the Angel of Punishment who "presides over just punishment." We must keep in mind that these parables pertain to fasting and repentance, not all of the Christian outlook; a thoroughly morose saint is no saint. The former flocks were too immersed in self-indulgence, but will have to pay a penalty of repentance equal to their time spent sinning eventually whereas those in penance now will enjoy eternal life without pain. The shepherd then disabuses Hermas of some of his erroneous notions, such as his idea that an hour spent in over-indulgence requires more than an hour of penance and punishment. Punishment, the shepherd reminds our narrator, is always more painfully and feels longer than enjoyment. This last parable should deepen in our minds a fading understanding, that God's justice and mercy are not in contradiction, and His punishments will fit our sins, nothing more or less.
We will cover the longer parables at a later time. Some of the parables may seem to contradict our doctrines of penance, purgation, and the Trinity. These differences ought not alarm us. These teachings were believed in a less defined manner, but are clearly still present in the Shepherd of Hermas, a work which emphasizes repentance and returning to the Church with sincerity. The parables and visions match with this point and may use language or allegories which do not match perfectly with later teachings, but certainly do not contradict or contravene them.