Glory to Jesus Christ!
My dear friends in our Lord, the question may come up sometimes, especially during this time of the year as we prepare ourselves for Lent, the question comes up as to why we give things up for Lent. What’s the purpose?
Some people might think, understandably, that we view those things we give up as bad somehow. But that’s not always the case, by any means.
Of course, we should give up those things which are evil – that’s essential in the life of grace. But in Lent, we are enjoined to give up even things which are not evil of themselves. Next Sunday, for instance, is Meatfare Sunday, traditionally the last day of eating meat until the feast of the Resurrection. Eating meat is by no means an evil, and yet we give it up.
For give up those things which are more easily given up, even good things – for a time – in order that we might train ourselves and strengthen ourselves so that we might more easily be able to give up that which is evil. We deny ourselves in small things – such as the quantity and the quality of the food that we eat – in order that we might be able to deny ourselves in the greater things – such as our disordered passions and the disordered demands of our own pride.
Today in the Gospel we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son – a well known and well-loved parable. And we do well to consider it again today in the light of our preparation for the coming Lent, and in the light of the Apostolic reading that we are given today, too.
In the Epistle, Saint Paul tells us, “All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful to me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” “All things are lawful,” Saint Paul says truly. That is, things considered in themselves. He’s not even speaking of actions, but of things. All that is has been created by God for good.
“All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient.” If there’s one thing that we humans excel at, it’s misusing good things, using good things in a bad way. Our speech – we are given speech to give glory to God, and to utter the truth, and turn around and use our speech to lie, to harm, to blaspheme. Our hands are given to help, to heal – we use them to harm, to steal. Food: food is given to nourish and to preserve life, and we abuse it, eating too much, too little, in ways that harm our health. The list can go on.
It is not the things in themselves, but the use – or misuse – of those things which is of the greater concern in the spiritual life. We see this in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He asked for and received his half of the inheritance. This was entirely his right, entirely lawful. His motivation, as we know, may not have been exactly selfless, but his request and his reception of the inheritance were completely lawful. Totally lawful.
But not – at all – expedient. He had his inheritance, and then mis-used it. Squandered it. Used it in pursuit of his own slavery to his desires, to his passions. But remember, as Saint Paul told us, “All things are lawful to me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” That is, we must not allow ourselves to become slaves to things of this world, or to our own passions, our own desires, our own opinions.
Precisely for this reason, we have this Sunday and this week before Meatfare Sunday once again to prepare ourselves. To be ready to set aside even those things which are lawful – to set them aside for a time – so that we might train our own bodies – and our minds – and our hearts – not to be slaves to themselves.
In setting aside some lawful thing for a time during the Lenten fast, we help break the chains which bind us in servitude to our own ignorance. When these chains are broken and we are able to begin to walk in the light of the freedom of the grace of God, then we see how easily the passing things of this world are left behind in order to follow after those things which do not perish.
We are awakened to a realization of the truth of things, just as the Prodigal Son finally came to his senses while dwelling in a pigsty, eating husks. If the Prodigal had not had the courage to give up the promise of daily husks to eat, he would not have broken the figurative chains keeping him in the sty. He would not have found his way back to the house of his father.
So, we too, must prepare ourselves to see that the things of this world, even though they are in themselves good, should have no more power over us than do the husks in a pigsty. Then we break the chains of slavery to illusion. Then we begin to walk the path of righteousness, illuminated by grace.
So this is our lesson and our work put before us this week: the recognition that even those things which are lawful are not always expedient – but to break the chains which tie us down is no loss. Let us arise eagerly to hasten back to the father’s house.