Glory and Vainglory

John 5:31-47

This Gospel says a lot about glory and praise. It prompts us to ponder:  Do we sometimes worry too much over what others think of us? Do we sometimes say or do things to draw attention to ourselves? Do we ever obsess over whether we left the right impression with people?

According to St Thomas Aquinas, "glory" denotes someone's excellence being known and approved by others. He explains that there is nothing wrong with others recognizing our good qualities and deeds. In fact, seeking to live in a way that inspires others to give glory to God and to pursue a more virtuous life is good.  Jesus himself said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”


However, seeking human praise for its own sake is sinful. Such a person wants glory for himself more than he wants glory for God. He wants to receive the praise of men, which is referred to as vainglory. It is glory that is empty, fickle, and often off the mark.  Aquinas explains that the glory we seek can be vain in one of three ways:


First, it’s vain to seek praise for something that isn’t truly praiseworthy. This would include seeking praise for sinful acts, such as the college student, who seeks respect from his peers for his drunkenness, his sexual exploits, or cheating on exams. He’d be pursuing vain glory.


Yet even devout Christians are susceptible to this vice when they plan their lives around the standards of happiness and success set by the world. For example, we might hope to gain respect from others for having exceptional grandchildren, having the perfectly decorated house or obsessing over being the best pickle ball player in the Community Center. These are not evil pursuits in themselves, but they can distract us from pursuing Christian ideals such as charity, generosity, and humility. If these worldly pursuits hinder us from living a truly praiseworthy life, a life of virtue and holiness, then we may be seeking the vainglory of this world more than the glory of God.


Second, it is sinful to seek glory from people whose judgment is not sound. Most of us naturally desire the approval of our bosses, parents, or friends. But if these people do not truly understand what a good, virtuous life is, we likely will be disappointed, frustrated, or misled.


To seek their recognition would be pursuing vainglory, for they are not able to judge what is truly praiseworthy. They may sometimes praise the wrong things, and they will fail to recognize what is most noble in life. They might even look down upon aspects of our Christian life. As the Gospel hints at, instead of seeking the approval of worldly men and women, we should seek the praise of Christ, and by extension, his faithful followers who judge by his standards, not the world's.


Third, seeking glory is sinful if in one's heart, one desires human praise more than God's praise. Do we do virtuous deeds out of love for God and neighbor?  Or is there a part of us wanting to be noticed and esteemed by others?


For example, a parish catechist might pour her heart into her ministry primarily because she loves the praise she receives from the pastor and her fellow parishioners. Parents might arrive at Mass early and train their kids to behave well during the liturgy, not just for the good of their children's spiritual development, but also because they like the attention they receive from those observing who say, "What a nice Catholic family!" To the extent that we do good deeds in order to draw attention to ourselves and not to God, we suffer from vainglory.


Today’s teaching challenges us to examine how pure our motives are when we practice our faith. Do we worship God and serve the Church purely out of selfless love for God, or is there a part of us selfishly seeking to receive praise from men? Our motives are always going to be a mixed bag. None of us are perfect. But we can all stand to move the needle a little more toward being more magnanimous.


As I saw in recent Facebook post, “In the end, your life will not be defined by your name, title or your status. It will be defined by how you lived, loved and served others.”


And so we pray, Lord, keep us from falling prey to the many temptations that pride and vainglory seem to scatter in our paths that wrongly take the glory from where it belongs, with you.  Help us to clothe ourselves in the truth by allowing your Holy Spirit to work in us so deeply, that people will start to see Jesus more readily in our lives.


We pray this prayer in Jesus’ name, Amen!


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