“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk. 14:31).
Who knew that Jesus was a strategic thinker? His short parable about the king who goes out to wage war is unique to Luke’s Gospel: a militant note where we might not expect it. Jesus’ point, in this parable and the one about the tower that precedes it, is that before you set out on a task, you’re well advised to consider the odds of completing it. In the parable of the ruler who goes out to war, two-to-one odds against you are not good at all. As Jesus says, better to make peace with your opponent before the clash of arms. After all, you might not be able to drive home your assault and to carry your point.
Jesus’ parable of warfare and statecraft is timely if we think about events in the world. Think of the war in Ukraine; think of the conclusion of American involvement in Afghanistan, or the even earlier war waged by the Soviets in that same country decades before. Jesus’ parable never seems to go out of style. “What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able” (Lk. 14:31). No doubt leaders in these cases sat down and considered the odds, but as it turned out their calculations were off.
Warfare is an uncertain business; in fact, it is the most uncertain business there is. For historians, it’s the paradigmatic case of contingency and indeterminacy of result. Because of war’s violence and the complexity of factors involved, it is almost impossible to chart a reliable course in advance of a conflict. Military commanders know that a carefully laid plan of action disappears almost immediately upon contact with the enemy. I suppose this is a lesson that Vladimir Putin has learned by now; but if so, it’s a lesson that any leader eventually learns when engaged in warfare.
What’s true about war and statecraft is just a more extreme version of what’s true about life: it’s full of uncertainty and incalculable factors. We chart a course and figure the odds but that doesn’t mean we’ll be in control of the outcome. Things will also happen that we never imagined being part of the result. Cause and effect just don’t work that way, in simple and straightforward fashion. Another way of saying this is that life’s messy, and there are always unresolved threads that are left over.
As a result, Christians in the world are bound to have a robust sense of God’s providence, working through events in spite of the complexity and uncertainty of human life. God is at work in our lives, certain and sure, though we have a difficult time discerning the precise way in which God’s will is being worked out. It says in our psalm today, “How deep I find your thoughts, O God!” (Ps. 139:16): deep and difficult to look into! Our perspective is limited, not limitless, so we trust in God that he will be true to his word.
Not only do the loose ends of life evoke our faith, but they are also a reminder that God is bigger than we are. His ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts, as it says in the prophet Isaiah (Is. 55:8). In spite of our best efforts, we cannot wrap life up into a tidy bundle because God is larger than life. Nothing, after all, could be more open-ended than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a huge loose end if there ever was one. His death and resurrection means life for the world, and is the good news that we’re given to proclaim.
Still, the point of Jesus’ parable is the need for the ruler to consider his course. This doesn’t mean that we are in control of our lives, through our careful planning, but rather that our own intentionality is important. As Christians, we are bound to gather ourselves and to chart a course in faith. In our liturgy, we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” because we’re bringing our wills into conformity with God’s will for us. What we do is crucial to God’s work in the world. As disciples, it’s important that we follow through, with clear eyed intentionality and faithful consideration.
Our celebration of confirmation today is a case of charting a course; of gathering ourselves and seeking to respond to what God is doing in the world and in our lives. As we reaffirm our baptismal vows along with our confirmand, we say “yes” to God, seeking on our knees his will for us. We know the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst, in this liturgy, and that God is trustworthy to work his perfect will in us.
In the midst of our reaffirmation, we learn to depend upon God’s grace, his power and presence in our lives, as the ultimate ground of our being and action. In following through, we cannot depend upon ourselves, because even our own actions are themselves part of God’s plan, and require his grace. God is always the chief actor at work in us.
St. Augustine said somewhere that when God rewards our works, he crowns his own gifts. In other words, the grace of God is there before we ever arrive on the field. At every crossroad and at every crisis, before the clash of arms, God has been at work in us, calling upon our faith at the moment it is required.