The Power of Persistence, Part 2: Reflections on Luke 18:9-14
Muehl points out that the stance of self-deprecating penitence is not to become our permanent spiritual posture. Writing in the early 1970s, he expressed his fear that preaching was dominated by a "gospel of guilt." He makes a good point. If this prayer was the only one the publican ever recited for the rest of his life, if the sense of unworthiness invaded and dominated all his thoughts and self-perception for the rest of his life, then he is the last person with whom we would want to identify. There comes a time when we need to trust that we are forgiven and accept divine grace to move beyond regret, remorse, and acknowledgment of our sins into the arena of sanctification, being blessed to be a blessing to others. We certainly can't do that if we are arrogant like the Pharisee. But, as Muehl helpfully points out, neither can we do it if we remain habitually mired in a sense of our unworthiness.
He cites evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935), who was no stranger to prayers of unworthiness and dramatic experiences of forgiveness. Sunday is reported to have said once that the best thing that could happen to any person would be to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, walk out of the tent, be hit by a truck, and killed instantly. There would be no test-driving of one's faith, no opportunity to backslide, and no chance to move from "God be merciful to me a sinner!" to "By the Grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).
Those who felt unworthy may not have been the original audience of this parable, but it does have a message, not only for those who persist in being puffed up, but also for those who have become comfortable in their lack of confidence and use it as an excuse for inaction.
When we persist in genuine humility, we invite the power of God to work through us. There is a saying “Persistence prevails when all else fails.” When we persist in genuine humility, our prayer is that we will allow nothing to interfere with its workings. Not the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Not the self-loathing that presumes to denigrate a human being, in this case, ourselves, who is made in the image of God. This parable is a freeze frame, a slice of life. Sooner or later the preacher closes the Bible, says, "Here ends the lesson," and the listeners and preacher alike go out into the world to love and serve our neighbors, divested of both arrogance and shame.
Luke believed the purpose of this parable was to challenge self-righteousness and to promote humility. The lead-in to the parable speaks volumes, "He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt" (18:9). This group needs to get their minds right and change the direction of their persistence from arrogance to humility, from a self centered agenda to divine commission.
But the parable is also for those who refuse to trust that God can work in their lives because of who they are and what they have done. They need to get their minds right and change the direction of their persistence from perpetual self-deprecation to their divine commission.
Persistence prevails when all else fails. But it’s best if we are persisting in an endeavor that is in keeping with the Presence and Character of our persistently convicting, but persistently forgiving and empowering God.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.