The theme of the Gospel readings over the past few weeks has been a long and sometimes sharp reminder that there will be a final judgment, and the Lord our God is the judge.
We had the two sons, one told his father he would do the work but did not and the other said he wouldn’t but he did. Jesus invited us to think about how words are cheap and how we live is how we will be measured.
We had the landowner whose tenants abused and killed his servants when they came to collect the rent. Jesus invited us to think about stewardship versus ownership and how easy it is for the steward to take what is not really his.
We had the wedding feast when the people invited spurned the invitation. Jesus asked us to think about being serious when we are invited to something truly important.
We had last week the Pharisees and Herodians getting together to trap Jesus with the question about the census tax. Jesus invited us to think less like scholars who think a snappy line will win the debate, and more about the fundamental purpose of our lives, why we were born and what we will die for.
And today we have the Pharisees step up with a scholar of the law asking Jesus which of the commandments in the Law is the greatest. And today Jesus is inviting us to consider the sin of vanity, or as it is sometimes called, vainglory.
But, first, Jesus smacks down the scholar just as hard as he did the Pharisees last week. Knowing that the scholars of the Law got their status from their mastery of the intricacies of the Mosaic Law, he recites the Shema, which is the fundamental Jewish claim about God and our duty to him:
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. [Dt 6:4-5]
That comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, and the 10 Commandments directly follow that introduction. And then Jesus adds the Second Great Commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
If this had been a wrestling match, Jesus would have gotten points for the escape, the take-down, and finally the pin. But Jesus is not interested in scoring debate or wrestling points. He wants to save our souls. So what is the message here that might help us with that?
Jesus is warning the Pharisees about the sin of vanity. Vanity is a big problem because vanity is about the misappropriation of glory. It is vain glory. The glory we get because other people think well of us is vain glory. It doesn’t last. We are caught up in vanity when we put the opinions of others ahead of the opinion of God. Reputation is not God, but sometimes we let it become our god. Vanity is the undue sense of importance and meaning attached to things that are not that important or that full of meaning.
St. Frances de Sales described it this way:
Vainglory is the glory that we give ourselves; either for what is not really in us, or for what is in fact in us but not owing to anything we did.
Vanity is the pretty girl who thinks because she is pretty she is popular.
Vanity is the kid who got straight A’s in college and thinks because of that he should be running the company.
Vanity is the guy who thinks that because he drives a fancy car you will think better of him.
None of these things is bad, of course. It’s great to be pretty. It’s great to be good at school. It’s great to be able to afford a fancy car. The conditions we encounter are not the problem. It’s the importance we attach to them.
Jesus knows that the exterior beauty is less important than the interior beauty of the soul.
Jesus knows that schoolwork is only one kind of smarts.
Jesus knows that cars are for transportation.
So Jesus gives us a simple and comprehensive rule of life in these two great commandments.
First, love God with all that you have. Second, love your neighbor as you love yourself.
This is quite simple. Apparently we do not really need 600 Mosaic Laws, we just need two. But simple does not mean easy. Loving God with all that I have means not holding back in my relationship with Him. Loving God with all that I have means not attaching value where the world attaches value. It’s easy to make fun of chasing Instagram likes, but those were preceded by Facebook likes, and by how many people signed our high school yearbooks, and by needing to live in the right neighborhood, and by dropping the name of our famous friend, and so on since the dawn of time. Vanity is attaching importance to external things when God only cares about the internal and the eternal things.
Loving God with all that I have means putting him first. Putting Him ahead of my own comfort and safety. Daring to endure some suffering because I love Him. Daring to risk embarrassment because I call upon his Name when I am in trouble or when I am filled with joy. Everybody knows what happens to the nail that sticks out. Loving God means being willing to be that nail.
Loving God with all that I have means not turning away from Him when things aren’t going my way. It means surrendering my will to him, as Our Lady did, and it means surrendering my timeline to him, trusting in God’s time as well as his goodness.
All of that is so hard, Lord! No wonder we are easily tricked by the Devil into something easier, like getting good grades or making a lot of money. Those are good things, to be sure, but they are not the Really Good Thing.
Well, if we somehow manage to love God with all that we have, then the second great commandment should be a piece of cake, right? But it is not. We have a duty to love ourselves, for we were made in God’s image and have the dignity attached to that reality. But every other person does, too. And that’s where vanity can trip us up. It’s hard to see the dignity of the dirty drug addict asking for money in the middle of the busy intersection, but God sees it and he wants me to see it, too.
We love ourselves enough to try to stay safe and warm, fed and clothed, and God wants us to love our neighbor enough to help him get those good things, too. We love ourselves enough to stay healthy in mind and body, and God wants us to help our neighbor there, as well. We love ourselves enough to want to hear cheers when we do well and not hear a peep when we mess up, and God wants us to love our neighbors in the same way.
Vanity is seeing the good things we enjoy or worked for, and seeing past those good things when we look at others. If we are physically fit, do we see inside the fellow who is not? If we are careful stewards of our money, can we see the image of God in the fellow who wastes his money on lotto tickets and beer? God sees in that other guy what we see in ourselves: purpose and potential, and he wants us to see it in them, too. Don’t misunderstand me. Taking care of ourselves is a good thing. Using our talents and earning money is a good thing. We should appreciate those good things. We just have to be vigilant against the vainglory of attaching too much meaning to those good things.
Theologians tell us that one of God’s primary attributes is simplicity. The Shema that Jesus recited to the scholar says it: The Lord our God is One. God is simple. It is the Devil who introduces complexity to distract us from the simplicity of God. Jesus gives us the Great Commandment to call us back to simplicity and away from the vainglory of the world. Love God with all that we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two, hang all the law and the prophets.