Trading away our freedom

A homily for Ash Wednesday

What might it look like for us today to “store up treasures in heaven”? I think we all can agree on that old saying that “you can’t take it with you”, knowing that material possessions are meaningless in the face of death. But I wonder about things that deny our souls and rob us of life in the here and now? I wonder about how our concerns to be somebody, to impress others, be successful or be seen with the right people can drive us in ways that ultimately cost us life and freedom?

I am grateful to The Rev’d Dr Margaret Wesley for this story, which can lead us to the heart of these questions. (


Once upon a time in an empire far, far away there were two friends who went to work for the emperor. Both of them started at entry level positions on the emperor’s staff. One day the emperor called one of them in and asked him to perform a certain task for him. This first friend politely refused to perform the task, and the emperor became angry and threw him out of the palace. Not only that, the emperor made sure that nobody in the city would employ him.

Then the emperor called in the second friend and asked him to perform the same task. He did it, and the emperor gave him a promotion. The emperor gave him other tasks and each time the second friend did them willingly and soon he was wealthy man, in a position of power and influence in the palace.

Then one day this wealthy servant remembered his friend who had been employed at the same time as him. He wanted to find out how this old friend was getting on, so he went to the house where his friend used to live, but the family there said that his friend had not lived there for years. They gave the man an address where his friend might, possibly, be found. 

As the wealthy servant looked at the address, his face lost all its colour. It was in the worst street in the worst part of the city. The second servant thought for a while about whether or not he really wanted to see his friend enough to go to that part of town, but he eventually overcame his repugnance, climbed back into his chariot and gave the address to the driver.

The driver looked a bit dubious but took him to the address. The house was little more than a hovel. Just a few boards held loosely together. As he knocked on the front door, the door gave way and fell inwards, revealing the first friend sitting at a rough table eating the thinnest thin soup you could imagine. It looked as though it had been soup several weeks ago but had been watered down each day so that now it was little more than grey water.

The second servant had intended to be polite, but when he saw this scene he couldn’t help himself. He said, “My friend! My friend! If only you had learned to obey the emperor, you would not have to eat this thin soup!”

The first friend looked up and smiled a beautiful smile, that filled the bare room with warm sunshine. “My friend! My friend!” he said, “If only you had learned to eat thin soup, then you would not have to obey the emperor.”


Sometimes we trade away our freedom in small pieces for comfort, or things, or security or influence or power. We are pretty good at our self-justifications too- or at least I know I am.

This story paints a picture of a free soul- the man who learned how to eat thin soup. A man who knew how to release attached to possessions and identity. Jesus, in teaching us not to worry about outer appearance and rewards but to focus on the state of our hearts, is showing us the way to freedom and to the spiritual treasure that endures, both in this life and in the one to come.

May we, this Lent, examine our hearts and allow the Spirit’s searching light to show us who we are and who we can be. May we find ourselves walking closely with the One who promises that if in Christ we are set free, we shall be free indeed.