In February 1497, a Monk named Girolama Savonarola started a fire. Leading up to this, he and his followers spent several months collecting items that they thought might entice people to sin or neglect their religious duties—including artwork, cosmetics, instruments, and dresses. On the appointed day, thousands of vanity items were gathered at a public square in Florence, Italy, and set on fire. The event has come to be known as the Bonfire of the Vanities.
Savonarola might have found inspiration for his extreme actions in some shocking statements from the Sermon on the Mount. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away,” said Jesus. “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29–30). But if we interpret Jesus’s words literally, we miss the point of the message. The entire sermon is a treatise on going deeper than the surface, to focus on the state of our hearts rather than blaming our behavior on external distractions and temptations.
The Bonfire of the Vanities made a great show of destroying belongings and works of art, but it is unlikely that the hearts of those involved were changed in the process. Only God can change a heart. That’s why the psalmist prayed, “Create in me a pure heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). Life’s vanities don’t matter. It’s our heart that counts.