Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
To sin–especially to sin grievously–is not only to offend God, but also to fundamentally act against our human nature and become less, and even subhuman. Conversely, to live a life of virtue and goodness is to honor God by become authentically human. And this explains why we respect and honor great men and women whose lives were characterized by heroic virtue, justice and uprightness. It also explains why evil, violent and tyrannical figures of history typically evoke our disgust and horror. One reason for this esteem of virtue and goodness is offered by the old adage according to which “virtue is its own reward.” In other words, the reward of virtue is–among other things–that sense of integrity and wholeness we experience in acting and living in accordance with our true human nature.
Now whereas Jesus’ call to repent and believe in the Gospel is obviously a summons to a life of virtue and integrity, it is also more than that. For Jesus doesn’t just say “repent” but also “believe”–believe in the Gospel, that Good News that is inseparable from Jesus who preached it. This is to affirm that Jesus’ call to repentance is simultaneously a call to discipleship, friendship and eternal union with himself. However this friendship is not offered as the reward for repentance and growth in virtue and, instead, growth in virtue and goodness are the fruit of saying “yes” to this call that initiates an ever deepening relationship of love with Christ. For although acting virtuously is acting in accordance with our true human nature, that same human nature can never realize its ultimate potential except in a loving and self-giving relationship with Christ who simultaneously gives himself to us, and in that giving, completes us.
Thus to repent without also believing in the Gospel (that is, in Christ) is to opt for a possibly improved but less than fully human existence–one that is fraught with spiritual dangers that Jesus warned us about. I say this because repentance without simultaneously believing and entering into a loving relationship with Christ is a little like ridding ourselves of that unclean spirit that Jesus tells us then roams through arid regions searching for rest, but finding none, it says, “I shall return to my home from which I came.” But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there, and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.
You may recall that these words of Jesus are preceded by his warning that whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Opting for a life of virtue (as some secular humanist might) but without a concomitant opening to Christ, may free us from some of the more crass and fleshly vices, but when the lesser demons depart and nothing fills the hearts created to be the dwelling place of God, then sooner or later the more subtle, sophisticated, but more pernicious demons of pride, vainglory, superiority, intolerance and mercilessness may take up their abode in our hearts and we will be even less human and more unhappy than before.
So the answer is to do as Jesus instructs: repent and believe. For although virtue may be its own reward, anything less than Christ is no reward at all. Let us seek Christ, then, and not simply virtue, for when we have Christ then we also have virtue–that true virtue which is nothing less and nothing more than becoming and remaining all that we were created and are called to be.