The Pastor of Hermas on Fasting and Obedience: Excerpts from an Early Christian Document

The Pastor of Hermas, a.k.a. the Shepherd of Hermas, is an early Christian document that was even cherished as scripture by some early Christians. It relates visions and parables given to a man named Hermas by an angel acting as his shepherd or guide. It is one of several early sources referring to the practice of baptism for the dead, but today I’d like to quote from a section on fasting to help remind Latter-day Saints and others that evolution that has occurred over the centuries in understanding the conditions for salvation. Hermas also offers a familiar perspective on the importance of fasting, and the need to use funds saved in fasting to help the poor in our midst. I’m also intrigued by hos own version of the parable of the vineyard. The passage below comes from the 5th Similitude in the Third Book of the Pastor of Hermas:

“I say to you,” he continued, “that the fasting which you think you observe is not a fasting. But I will teach you what is a full and acceptable fasting to the Lord. Listen,” he continued: “God does not desire such an empty fasting. For fasting to God in this way you will do nothing for a righteous life; but offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God.”

Chap. II.

“Hear the similitude which I am about to narrate to you relative to fasting. A certain man had a field and many slaves, and he planted a certain part of the field with a vineyard, and selecting a faithful and beloved and much valued slave, he called him to him, and said, ‘Take this vineyard which I have planted, and stake it until I come, and do nothing else to the vineyard; and attend to this order of mine, and you shall receive your freedom from me.’ And the master of the slave departed to a foreign country. And when he was gone, the slave took and staked the vineyard; and when he had finished the staking of the vines, he saw that the vineyard was full of weeds. He then reflected, saying, ‘I have kept this order of my master: I will dig up the rest of this vineyard, and it will be more beautiful when dug up; and being free of weeds, it will yield more fruit, not being choked by them.’ He took, therefore, and dug up the vineyard, and rooted out all the weeds that were in it. And that vineyard became very beautiful and fruitful, having no weeds to choke it. And after a certain time the master of the slave and of the field returned, and entered into the vineyard. And seeing that the vines were suitably supported on stakes, and the ground, moreover, dug up, and all the weeds rooted out, and the vines fruitful, he was greatly pleased with the work of his slave. And calling his beloved son who was his heir, and his friends who were his councillors, he told them what orders he had given his slave, and what he had found performed. And they rejoiced along with the slave at the testimony which his master bore to him. And he said to them, ‘I promised this slave freedom if he obeyed the command which I gave him; and he has kept my command, and done besides a good work to the vineyard, and has pleased me exceedingly. In return, therefore, for the work which he has done, I wish to make him co-heir with my son, because, having good thoughts, he did not neglect them, but carried them out.’ With this resolution of the master his son and friends were well pleased, viz., that the slave should be co-heir with the son. After a few days the master made a feast, and sent to his slave many dishes from his table. And the slave receiving the dishes that were sent him from his master, took of them what was sufficient for himself, and distributed the rest among his fellow-slaves. And his fellow-slaves rejoiced to receive the dishes, and began to pray for him, that he might find still greater favour with his master for having so treated them. His master heard all these things that were done, and was again greatly pleased with his conduct. And the master again calling together his friends and his son, reported to them the slave’s proceeding with regard to the dishes which he had sent him. And they were still more satisfied that the slave should become co-heir with his son.”

Chap. III.

I said to him, “Sir, I do not see the meaning of these similitudes, nor am I able to comprehend them, unless you explain them to me.” “I will explain them all to you,” he said, “and whatever I shall mention in the course of our conversations I will show you. [Keep the commandments of the Lord, and you will be approved, and inscribed amongst the number of those who observe His commands.] And if you do any good beyond what is commanded by God, you will gain for yourself more abundant glory, and will be more honoured by God than you would otherwise be. If, therefore, in keeping the commandments of God, you do, in addition, these services, you will have joy if you observe them according to my command.” I said to him, “Sir, whatsoever you enjoin upon me I will observe, for I know that you are with me.” “I will be with you,” he replied, “because you have such a desire for doing good; and I will be with all those,” he added, “who have such a desire. This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.”

Interesting passage. It calls us to keep the commandments and obey the Father that we might become joint-heirs with the Son. Fasting is a tool to help us grow in spirituality, if we are striving to keep the commandments. And be sure to let the savings in food from fasting be given to the poor.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “The Pastor of Hermas on Fasting and Obedience: Excerpts from an Early Christian Document

  1. Hi Jeff,

    You said, "…but today I'd like to quote from a section on fasting to help remind Latter-day Saints and others that evolution that has occurred over the centuries in understanding the conditions for salvation."

    There's one point of view (more than a point of view, really) in Mormonism that the gospel has existed on Earth in something like its present form (except for a period of interruption) since Adam. It doesn't allow much for an evolutionary origin of doctrine.

    I confess I have a bit of a problem with the notion that there were Christians practicing baptism as a Christian ritual and the like 6,000 years ago. An incremental evolution in religious beliefs and rituals leading up to Christianity, and further to Mormonism in its current form, appears more consistent with how the world works. The Bible itself is consistent with such a progression in doctrine.

    When one looks at the history of Christianity, where the gaps are filled in, there appears to be continuous change in the mathematical sense. That is, there are no discontinuous jumps where suddenly the whole system of theology is radically altered. This raises certain questions about the mechanics of a "Great Apostacy," but that might be a discussion for another day.

    So I'm curious as to what you mean by the "evolution that has occurred over the centuries in understanding the conditions for salvation," because it almost sounds like you agree with me on some level, but I suspect you don't.

  2. Anthony, while some eternal truths have certainly been with us since the beginning, it's hard to take the 9th article of faith seriously without accepting some evolution in our human understanding: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

    For what it's worth, I consider myself to be a pretty orthodox Mormon.

  3. Whaaaat? "Nothing but bread and water"? Wow, if I'd known that, today would have gone a whole lot easier! 🙂 (That may relate at least partially to Anthony's question– apparently the practice of fasting was a bit different back then. Are there more significant differences? Wouldn't surprise me.)

  4. Even though The Shepherd of Hermas was commonly read as authoritative by Christians during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, I'm glad that it was ultimately rejected from the canon. It repeatedly makes the point that baptized Christians have only one chance to repent (from the time The Shepherd of Hermas is revealed), and then that's it! Little wonder then that many Christian converts waited until the end of their lives to receive baptism, like Constantine. Church authorities could argue that the late origin of the book disqualified it from being canonical, but I have to wonder if the notion that baptized Christians had no more chance for repentance didn't also influence their decision.

    Still, it's a very interesting book. Some parts of it suggest that early Christians had more sophisticated ideas about visions and revelations than many modern Christians do.

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