Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost: How Vain is your Glory?
In our lesson for today we read from Saint Pauls epistle to the Galatians 5:26. "Let us not be made desirous of vain glory.
How Vain is your Glory?
To paraphrase Carly Simon: You’re so vain you probably think this sermon is about you, don’t you?
You may have heard the story of the young man who grew up in a small town, then moved away to attend college and law school. He decided to come back to the small town because he could be a big man in this small town. He really wanted to impress everyone. He opened his new law office, but business was rather slow at first.
One day, he saw a man coming up the sidewalk. He decided to make a big impression on this new client when he arrived. As the man came to the door, the lawyer picked up his phone. He motioned the man in, all the while talking, “No. Absolutely not. You tell those clowns in New York that I won’t settle this case for less than one million. Yes. The Appeals Court has agreed to hear that case next week. I’ll be handling the primary argument and the other members of my team will provide support. Okay. Tell the DA that I’ll meet with him next week to discuss the details.”
Finally, the lawyer put down the phone and turned to the man. He said sorry for the delay. What can I do for you?”
The man said, “I’m from the phone company. I came to hook up your phone.”
Nowadays most modern lists of the Seven Deadly Sins use the word pride, and they fail to mention vainglory at all. But I believe that there is a difference between Pride and Vainglory.
After studying this subject, I found that Thomas Aquinas and Saint Gregory the great make a distinction between pride and vainglory, with pride being the cause of vainglory. So what’s the difference between Pride and Vainglory?
Summed up in just a few words, the difference is this. Pride says, “I think I’m someone great.” Vainglory says, “I want you to think I’m someone great.” Vainglory is all about the human desire for honor and glory, recognition and approval.
What makes vainglory different from pride is its concern about what others think. Prideful people want more than anything else to be “number one”—they seek greatness and superiority. Vainglorious people, on the other hand, don’t really care if they are the best, as long as other people think they are the best. Vainglory will seek whatever will bring the most public applause, whether it’s deserving or not. Vainglory is a desire for recognition and acclaim.
The whole point for the vainglorious is that others take notice. When we struggle with this sin, we need people to give us their approval. Vainglory causes us to be more concerned with our reputation (which is what others think about us) than with what we really are. For the vainglorious, image is everything.
Let me give you a couple of examples. A prideful student takes delight in knowing he got straight A’s because that means he’s smarter than anyone else in his class. Vainglory says, “I want the grades posted so that everybody else knows I’m at the top.”
In vainglory, we seek only the “appearance of excellence.” That is, we want more than anything else to be recognized.
And this is a strong temptation for us, because I think there is within all of us an innate desire, perhaps even a need for recognition.
We all know what it’s like to want our boss to recognize the hard work that we do, or to desire public acknowledgment and approval for who we are or what we’ve accomplished. There’s a deep part of us that seeks approval.
Take, for example, a stay-at-home mother’s work. Most of her work is not seen by others. Sometimes it doesn’t get even counted as work. People will ask, “Do you work or do you just stay home with the kids?” She knows in her heart that her investment in her children’s upbringing is worthwhile, but she often struggles because she doesn’t feel like anybody else recognizes it.
Aquinas once said, “It seems to belong to a natural appetite that one wish one’s goodness to become known.” But this natural desire so easily gets out of control. When we are caught in the vice of vainglory, we find ourselves depending on this need for approval. So much, in fact, that we will sometimes accept that approval whether it is deserved or not. And we are tempted to vainglory in a wide variety of places — at home, at school, on the athletic field, in the workplace.
And as the early church fathers pointed out, perhaps our greatest temptation from Vainglory comes when we have virtue and good character, because it seems to bothers us most when our virtue goes unnoticed, or when we deserve honor that is not actually given to us. Aquinas quotes John Chrysostom as saying that “while other vices find their abode in the servants of the devil, vainglory finds a place in the servants of Christ.”
In fact, as we look to the scriptures for examples of vainglory, it is among the most religious that we find this sin most frequently.
Jesus directly confronts vainglory in his Sermon on the Mount. And he warns especially against the religious form of vainglory. Because it is sometimes tempting for us to try to look like a better Christian than we really are, in order to win approval and acclaim from others.
Jesus said, “Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven. Therefore when thou dost an almsdeed, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. .…“And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. ” (Matthew 6:1-2,5)
Jesus is obviously targeting the Pharisees here. He calls them out for the motivation behind their public prayers and their giving. He said they do this “in order to be seen by others.” They wanted people to whisper to one another, “Did you hear that prayer? That was awesome. I don’t know anybody else who can pray as good as that.” Or, “Look at how much he put in the collection plate! He’s one of the most important members of this synagogue.”
But Jesus makes it clear what the result of vainglory is. He says, “If you’re doing what you do so that other people will talk about how wonderful you are, then you’ll get what you want. But that’s all you’ll get. A life spent craving human glory and praise, full of empty-hearted acts for the sake of appearances and audiences, will bring only the fleeting applause the world can give.
Some of Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees, because they were more concerned about the appearance and outward observances of religion than a heart truly dedicated to worshiping God. He said in Matthew 23,
“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within you are full of rapine and uncleanness. Thou blind Pharisee, first make clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside may become clean." (Matthew 23:25-26)
Imagine this. You go into a fancy restaurant, the kind of place you only get to go to on special occasions like your anniversary. You’re seated in this restaurant. The atmosphere is wonderful. There’s a fireplace in the room and a piano in the corner playing romantic music. And in front of you is a linen tablecloth and the absolute finest porcelain china. It’s beautiful.
But after you drink your coffee, you look down into the cup and there’s a gob of mud with a roach crawling out of it. I understand that’s extremely gross but it’s exactly the sort of image Jesus wanted to convey. And if that were to happen to you, I don’t care how nice everything else was, there is absolutely no way you’re ever going back in that restaurant again. Because the cleanliness on the inside is much more important than the cleanliness on the outside.
But Jesus said that was exactly what the scribes and the Pharisees had done. They went through all the right motions of religion, they gave the appearance of pious devotion to God because that was the part that everyone could see. Everyone could see how they went to church every week and they fasted and they prayed and they gave lots of money. And people would be amazed at how righteous they were.
But on the inside, their hearts were absolutely corrupt. They had the appearance of being righteous, and they were recognized by everyone around them for their righteousness, but it was all just a show.
Before we come down too hard on the Pharisees, allow me to bring Jesus’ point a little closer to home. Let me ask you a question – How much time did you spend getting ready for mass this morning? Think about everything you did to get ready – brushing your teeth, getting a shower, combing your hair, shaving, putting your make-up on, all the other things you did to get ready. Altogether, think about it, how much time did you spend getting ready this morning?
OK, now…how much time did you spend preparing your heart for the Mass? How much time did you spend praying to God, asking him to make you receptive to His Word? How much time did you spend asking God to provide you with opportunity today to edify and encourage someone else when you got here? Do you take the time to go to confession? Do you ask God to remove anything in your heart that might prevent you from being able to fully worship God this morning? Now, add it all up. Altogether, how much time do you spend getting your heart ready for Mass?
You see, we can criticize the Pharisees, and feel good while we’re doing it, but the truth is, we all struggle with the same thing. We all have a tendency to clean the outside but neglect the inside. Because it’s the outside that everybody else sees, and we want to make sure we make a good impression on everybody around us.
Then Jesus used another illustration. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all filthiness. So you also outwardly indeed appear to men just; but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. ” (Matthew 23:27-28).
Today, you can go to any cemetery and you will find tombs that are absolutely beautiful, made of granite and marble, with intricate carvings and statues. But, on the inside, they’re all alike. They’re all full of rotting flesh and bones. Jesus said the same thing was true of the Jewish leaders. They may have looked good on the outside, but on the inside their hearts were corrupt.
One of the primary reasons that Jesus constantly warred with the Pharisees was that their religion was merely one of externals.
Outwardly, they showed respect for their dedication and their commitment to the law. But they did it out of Vainglory. They only did it so that everyone would recognize what great men they were. But on the inside, they were as far from the spirit of God as they could possibly be.
The Pharisees were obsessed with their image. They wanted to be looked up to and respected. They loved the praise of men and the status that it brought. They were guilty of vainglory.
How does vainglory manifest itself in our lives?
Going along with the crowd just so that we will “fit in”
Augustine tells a story about his teenage years. One night he and some friends were hanging out with not enough to do. They decided to steal pears from a neighboring farmer. They didn’t need the pears. They didn’t even want the pears. In fact, they ended up throwing them to the pigs. They took the pears just for the fun of stealing.
As he thought back on this crime, Augustine tried to figure out what it was that fueled his desire to sin. And he came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done it if he had been alone. He did it because he wanted to impress his friends.
It would be hard to find someone who has never exaggerated something he has done, or made up something about himself to impress those who are listening. We exaggerate because we think that doing so will make other people think more highly of us.
We all know we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, but sometimes we can’t seem to help ourselves. A few spiteful words shared in confidence can give us such a boost. Saying bad things about other people makes us feel good.
Part of the reason we gossip is to get our friends to think that we are funny or entertaining, or to think that we are someone important because we have information that nobody else has. It’s vainglory.
Hiding our true self
It’s ironic that the art of impressing others and gaining applause involves carefully hiding ourselves just as much as it involves showing ourselves off to advantage. To be lauded by others, there are things we cannot let them see. Winning their approval and praise requires not only that we put forward a false facade, but also the flip side of the coin: that we carefully conceal the ugly truth about ourselves.
Doing good to be noticed
Doing good is always a good thing to do. But we need to look at our motive. Do we do something good with the expectation that others will notice it? Or do something good that others didn’t notice, and feel disappointed by that? If nobody noticed, would we still do what we did? That desire to be noticed is vainglory.
Constantly asking, “What will people think about me if I do this?”
Paul said in I Corinthians 4:3, “But to me it is a very small thing to be judged by you.”
Boasting simply means “to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about one’s achievements, possessions, or abilities.”
The apostle Paul quoted Jeremiah saying, “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. For not he who commendeth himself, is approved, but he, whom God commendeth.” (2 Corinthians 10:17 18). In order words, it doesn’t really matter how great we think we are. All that matters is what God thinks of us.
Because when you get right down to it, the reason vainglory is vain is because it wants to put the focus on us instead of on God. Thomas Aquinas once said that the worst sort of vainglory occurs when we fail to give due glory to God as the source of our good. When we fail to recognize that everything we have and everything we are is just a gift from God and we are but stewards of “borrowed goods”. And so, any glory that is received needs to be directed beyond us to God.
To give up vainglory means that we got to relinquish our place at the center of attention — to admit that from beginning to end, “it’s not about me. ”