It has been a month since Russia invaded Ukraine. Over three million refugees have been displaced, many lives lost, and buildings destroyed. There are political, economic, and military actions being taken to resolve the problem.
As a church, we’ve also contributed and will continue to contribute to the refugee relief efforts. As Christians in worship on Sunday, I would like to look at the spiritual aspect of the problem. I would like to quote my favorite Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, who said,
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ~Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy was a highly gifted author known for his War and Peace. However, after his conversion, the books he wrote were even more impactful. He had influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. on their social justice movements. I believe Tolstoy’s book, Ressurection, should be read by every Christian.
At a time like this, most people are thinking about changing the world or figuring out how to eliminate Putin to stop the atrocity. The more tragedy we see, the more our minds turn toward vengeance, even though his atrocities have not directly affected us.
The media is also cheerleading the attitude. The vengeful mindset is not good for our spirit and is against Jesus’ teaching. We are in the Lenten season, and Lent is the time for us to consider changing ourselves.
Before Jesus began to change the world, he changed himself through his forty days of fasting. You might think it’s inconceivable to say that Jesus needed to change himself since he is the Son of God. However, don’t forget he is fully human and fully God. Like every one of us, he had to fight his flesh. If you treat him only as God, you will fail to learn from his human examples.
How do we know we are in a vengeful mindset or Christlike attitude? The way you want Putin to go down will determine your spiritual maturity. Today’s scripture lesson will challenge your level of grace or your Spiritual Quotient (SQ).
Let’s put our message in context and then look at it from a spiritual perspective. Just in case you don’t know, Putin came to power in 1999. Soon after that, he started an anti-corruption campaign. In 2003, he arrested one of the Russian oligarchs and put him on trial. He put him in a cage in the courtroom during the trial. With media cameras in the room, the whole world witnessed a billionaire in a cage.
Other Russian billionaires were shocked to see the trial and asked Putin what they should do to avoid that from happening to them. Putin said they must give him half of their wealth—not to the government or Russian citizens, but to Putin’s personal pocket.
So, in the name of anti-corruption, Putin made himself rich. As of today, Putin is worth over 100 billion dollars—one of the richest people in the world.
His invasion of Ukraine is to make himself richer. His concern about NATO is just an excuse for the invasion. Even though small and poor, Ukraine is very rich in natural resources and fertile lands for agriculture. It’s a war of greed. He told Chinese President Xi that the operation would take less than 24 hours, but now it is over a month.
The incompetence of his military is understandable since, in the past two decades, he focused mainly on making himself rich instead of maintaining the superpower. He has exposed his empty shell superpower. I doubt his nuclear weapons are still working at all. Anyway, according to the Art of War, we must not underestimate our enemy.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oligarch that Putin put in the cage, spent a decade in prison and is now living in London. He has been interviewed many times these days, and he said Putin is not suicidal. That means Putin is not likely to use nuclear weapons because he is fighting a war to make himself richer. He knows a nuclear war would not make him richer.
We can summarize all the above by saying, Putin is blinded by money. That’s why he is fighting a war like a blind man. Putin is different from Hitler in the sense that Hitler was power-thirsty, but Putin is money-hungry.
Now, let’s search your heart. Do you have a heart of vengeance or grace toward this man? It might be unthinkable to talk about grace seeing three million refugees and thousands of deaths. On the other hand, what do we get from vengeance? WWJD, what would Jesus do?
Let’s use this challenging reality for us to stretch our spiritual muscles and renew our understanding of what Jesus meant by loving our enemies and how to pray for our enemies. In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus has revealed to us what God expects us to do. Let’s begin.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture lesson is from Luke 15:11-32. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ” (Luke 15:11-32).
[This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!]
You might be questioning the title of this message, “The Prodigal Father and Three Sons.” This story is prominently known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but some theologians have argued it’s not the correct name. The real prodigal in this story is the father himself, who extravagantly expresses his love and grace. It’s the greatest story ever told, according to Mark Twain.
A reporter once asked Mark Twain, the author of Tom Sawyer, “People say you are the best storyteller ever lived. What do you have to say about that?” Twain said, “No, I am not the best storyteller ever lived.”
Then, the reporter asked, “Who would you regard as the greatest storyteller ever lived.” He said, “It would be Jesus.” “If so, what is the greatest story ever told?” He said, “The Prodigal Son.”
Even though this story is short and succinct, it’s pithy and profound. You can make a movie out of it or even create a Broadway show that could last forever. The musical Les Miserables is loosely based on it in terms of a life transformed by the extravagant grace of the prodigal priest.
Mark Twain is right because every time this story is told, it inspires people and even changes lives. It corrects our misconception of what God is like. We often think God is a grumpy old man in the sky or a cosmic killjoy waiting to zap anyone who doesn’t obey his commandments. This story shifts our paradigm about God to a loving father full of grace.
The story’s focus is not on the son but on the father. If we focus on the son, we will miss this story’s core teaching, which is about the extravagant love and grace of the Heavenly Father. So, it’s more appropriate to name it the Parable of the Prodigal Father.
Then, where is the third son, you may ask. The third son is telling the story. Each time I read this story, I got something richer out of it. During this reading, I see an unmentioned third son—a model for us to emulate. Then I see the third son is the one telling the story—Jesus himself.
Both sons in the story are imperfect. The younger brother was reckless but learned his lesson in the end. The elder brother appears perfect, but he can’t stand the younger brother, which makes him unable to rejoice. His self-righteous ego has blocked his grace. He said,
“But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:30).
Lacking grace, he is in the kingdom but not of the kingdom. Christianity is about celebration. If you refuse to join the party, it’s as good as not belonging to heaven. Jesus has told several parables about those who refuse to join the king’s banquet and those present but do not belong.
Now, let’s bring this story to our context. Would you let your foolish brother come home if you were the elder brother? If he did, would you celebrate with your father, or would you refuse to join the party?
You might say, “Of course, I am not that narrowminded. I am a good Christian and will welcome my lost brother to return home and even throw him a party myself.” It’s easier to say when a brother has done nothing more than squandering your father’s property with prostitutes.
Now, here is the challenge. What if Putin is that younger brother? I understand it is inconceivable, especially given three million refugees and thousands of victims. It’s far more atrocious than devouring the father’s property with prostitutes.
However, when a profound parable is placed in a more challenging context, it reveals its profundity even more.
This parable teaches us how do we pray for our enemies? Should we ask God to zap Putin to ashes? Should we pray for some special force to take him down as we did to Osama bin Laden? What’s the most Christlike way to pray? What end do you want to see?
Jesus is telling us through this story that the Father is looking outside the gate every day, waiting for the son to come home. We might be like the elder brother, never expect the younger one to come home, but might wish he died with the prostitutes in the foreign famine.
Even though we are not directly affected by Putin’s atrocity, our sense of justice makes us think of him with a vengeful mindset. A vindictive attitude comes out of our ego rather than a sense of justice. Our reaction to Putin reveals whether we are more like the elder brother or the storytelling brother—Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, taking down a tyrant by force may be necessary to save many lives in this fallen world. During the Second Worldwar, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the necessity to assassinate Hitler.
However, before we justify or endorse any action, we must understand the Father’s heart. To understand the Father’s heart, we must crucify our ego first. There are two ways to crush our ego: by default or by design.
The younger brother’s ego was crushed by default. He hit bottom when he was about to eat the pig food. Can you imagine a Jew sent to feed the pig, and he was so hungry that he was about to eat the pig’s food? That was the lowest point of his dignity.
Sometimes I wonder if it was the hunger that enlightened him. It’s like fasting by default. We all know fasting produces enlightenment even though his was accidental.
Even though well-behaved, the elder brother was still blinded by his ego.
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32).
Jesus represents the third Son, who crushed his ego by design with his forty days of fasting. The three temptations by Satan tested his resistance against three human ego problems: the desire for power, prestige, and possessions. He passed the test with flying colors which we need to emulate.
So, let’s use this season of Lent to tame our ego so that we can understand our Father’s heart and pray for others accordingly. The Father’s wish is clear: He wants the dead to come alive and the lost to be found.
Let us set our egos aside. Knowing the Father’s heart, let’s pray for the lost to be found and expect the dead to come alive.
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound happiness.