Nobody likes a showoff. But all of us, at least occasionally, enjoy being one, and that’s not surprising. Human beings hunger for recognition; we long to be noticed and, despite our protests, often like being the center of attention. In an age of social media, the craving to be seen and celebrated—to be in the spotlight—seems stronger than ever. But some desires are dangerous and this is certainly one of them. That is why vainglory—an inordinate desire for praise and recognition—has consistently been recognized as one of the seven deadly sins. It’s the church’s way of telling us that if we let this desire get the best of us, it will deeply damage us and never give us the satisfaction and fulfillment we anticipate.
Jesus knew this, and so it is no surprise that in today’s gospel he warns us to “be on guard” against people who do things only to be seen. We might call them “spiritual showoffs.” These are people who do good things—giving alms, praying, fasting—but for the wrong reasons. Even if their acts achieve good (such as helping the poor), they are not genuinely good acts because with spiritual showoffs their intention is not to do good, but solely to draw attention to themselves. That’s why Jesus dismisses them as nothing more than “hypocrites looking for applause.” But he’s also telling us that if we strive to find happiness and meaning in our lives by seeking praise and glory for ourselves, we will be sorely disappointed. Notice that with each example of spiritual hypocrisy, Jesus says, “they are already repaid.” He contrasts this with being repaid by God to stress the sheer emptiness and futility of a life whose dominant purpose is to make ourselves the center of attention; in other words, “they who are already repaid” end up with nothing at all.
We are called to give glory and praise not to ourselves, but to God. If we do so, day by day, through our thoughts, words, intentions, and actions, we will experience a happiness and fulfillment, an honor and glory, that we could never have given ourselves. Look at story of the prophet Elijah in today’s first reading. At the end of a life devoted wholly in service to God, Elijah is whisked up to heaven in a flaming chariot drawn by flaming horses. Our own life’s ending may not be so unforgettable, but we can be absolutely sure that God will glorify lives that were spent in glorifying God. After all, that’s why we are given life in the first place.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist family.