My first assignment after ordination was to a parish in southern Pinellas County. The pastor had been there a very long time, and had a lot of friends in the parish. Two of his friends served as volunteer maintenance workers for the parish. The pastor was deeply impressed by their repair and building maintenance skills. He bragged constantly about the money the parish saved by having these two men as volunteers.
There was no task that the two wouldn’t attempt. They repaired plumbing issues. They repaired electrical issues. They repaired the roof. In a very short time, however, I began to suspect that their involvement with the parish had much more to do with their friendship with the pastor than with any actual skills. They had “repaired” a plumbing leak in the parish offices by wrapping the drain pipe with duct tape. They “repaired” an electrical problem in the school building by stringing inexpensive extension cords from an outlet to an overhead light. Their roof “repairs” seemed to require splashing tar everywhere, but mostly on themselves.
Those two guys had hearts as big as the Gulf of Mexico, but their actual skills wouldn’t fill a toy boat. Good intentions aren’t good substitutes for good skills. This is the lesson behind the events narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. The brief conversations between Jesus, the Twelve and three would-be followers are illustrations of the demands of discipleship. Jesus demanded that his disciples abandon all other commitments in order to follow him with undivided hearts. He said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
Being a faithful follower of Jesus requires one’s total commitment and the mastery of a few specific skills. Jesus spoke constantly to his disciples about the necessity for them to be single-hearted in their loyalty to him, to forgive their enemies, to maintain unity among themselves and to trust unconditionally in God’s mercy. These, and the other demands that Jesus placed on his disciples, are a particular type of skill called virtue.
The word “virtue” is most often used to describe some good quality of a person or thing, or a good action by a person or thing. Virtue, in a religious context, however, has a meaning that is distinct from the commonly used meaning. Thomas Aquinas gave Catholicism its classical definition of virtue. According to Thomas, virtue is a meritorious act that is difficult by nature, but by repetition becomes a habit that can be performed with ease, proficiency and even a degree of artfulness.
An example from secular experience might serve to illustrate the meaning of the word virtue when it is used in a theological sense. Professional musicians are people who were born with innate musical talent, but spend their lives perfecting their skills. The level of proficiency required to be a professional musician can be maintained only by constant practice and improvement. The proficiency of a professional musician or a professional athlete or a skilled craftsman can be called “virtue” in the classical sense; such proficiency results from habitual practice of a difficult task until the difficult task can be performed with ease and artistry. Jesus requires this sort of virtue from his disciples.
If we wish to call ourselves followers of Jesus we are obliged to practice single-hearted devotion to Jesus on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. If we wish to be considered faithful disciples we are required to make forgiveness such a habitual practice that our acts of forgiveness are done with ease, and even artfulness. If we wish to be citizens of God’s Kingdom, then love of neighbor must become second nature to us. This is the meaning of virtue, and it is the life to which Jesus calls us.
Being a Catholic is not for amateurs or hobbyists. Being a disciple of Jesus is not something that can be done on a part-time or occasional basis. The life of faith requires total commitment and continuous practice. Would you put your trust in a Savior who was occasionally true to his word? Jesus deserves from us no less than he offers: a lifelong commitment that grows better with age.
God’s presence and God’s mercy are given to us in the form of offer. God offers, but does not impose; it is up to us to accept the offer. To live in God’s presence and to know God’s mercy ought to have perceptible effects in our lives, and one of those perceptible effects is virtue. There is a great deal of effort required in order to live the life of faith, but it is an effort that becomes graceful, dignified and beautiful when honed to the level of virtue. Jesus expressed precisely this sort of virtue when the Samaritans would not welcome him into their territory. (Luke 9:53-56) He wasted no time on anger, resentment or regret. He hastened forward to accomplish God’s will; we are his disciples when we imitate his example.