Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Shepherd of Hermas

This book is important to our understanding of a number of theological concepts about church and community in early Christianity. Of particular interest are the comments made about the author. Pernveden notes: “In general it is fair to say that Hermas seldom follows up an idea in a purely systematic way. This is partly due to the literary nature of the text, and partly also perhaps to the fact that theological systematization had hardly begun at that time. The absence of logic and consistency in Hermas’ writing has often been equated with a supposed inability to carry an idea to its logical conclusion or with his lack of necessary schooling and learning.” Opitz called Hermas “a muddle-headed theologian.” However these conclusions probably need to be reconsidered in light of the numerous findings characteristic of the original oral performance of this work.

The book includes a parable of the vineyard. This parable has been considered a vital passage of the Christology of the Shepherd of Hermas. A summary of the parable will illustrate many of the comments made about this book and this author. In this parable, the master goes abroad having left his vineyard in the hands of a chosen servant who is instructed that he need only install fences in the vineyard while the master is away. However, this servant goes to considerable trouble to improve the vineyard. When the master returns and sees the work performed by the servant, he is greatly pleased. The master calls his son and his counselors and tells them that he promised the servant his freedom if he installed the fences. The master tells his son and his counselors that he, now in addition, wished to make his servant joint heir with his son since he had taken such good care of the vineyard. A few days later the master gave a feast and sends the servant many dishes from the table. The servant takes the food and shares it with his fellow servants. The fellow servants beg the master to grant even greater favors to the servant. The son and counselors now readily approve the master’s decision to make the servant a joint heir.

After the person heard all of the parables, the parable of the vineyard being the last one, he requested an explanation of the parables. He was told that he needed to obey all of the Lord’s commandments. When he then asked for an explanation of the parable of the vineyard and of the identities of the master and the slave, the fences and the weed and the son and the counselors, the listener was told he was extremely arrogant in asking all these questions. Thereafter the explanation was provided wherein the field was identified with world, the master as the creator, the son as the Holy Spirit and the slave as the son of God. The explanation certainly reveals confusion and a lack of consistency in the interpretation of the parable.

It would be kinder to say that the Shepherd of Hermas is another amateur who did not understand the significance of the death of Jesus. I suspect that this lack of understanding was fairly common in early Christianity. Yet the parable of the vineyard, without its explanation, presenting the slave as a powerful role model, had to have been a strong message to the community about the need to share possessions and the reward for sharing.

Most scholars focus on the expressed concern over post baptismal sin. However, it may be that the frequent references to wealth and property and their misuse by members may be a reference to the sin that caused the concern and the need to place social control on the church community. Hermas expected the wealthier members of the church to care for the poorer members through the contributions of alms.

Copyrighted 2006


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