I once was struggling with the formatting for a blog post, and it was making me batty. In the type-setting world, being “justified” means adjusting the spaces between the words in each line so that both the left and right margins are even. For some reason, even though I was choosing “align left,” the text ended up being justified, and the columns were too narrow for that to look anything but weird. Sometimes text looks great when the words stretch evenly from the left edge of a column to the right. But other times, it looks artificial, phony.
And so it was here. The gaps in some sentences yawned. The density of words per line was completely out of balance. Finally, I looked behind to the hypertext code to see that I had brought some formatting code along with me when I had copied a phrase typed elsewhere, and that had caused the entire paragraph to change alignment. I know just enough about blog coding to know that I do not know much of anything about hypertext code, but I could spot what was amiss. Once the pesky hidden code was removed, the paragraph returned to the formatting I desired.
Later, I thought about how much our own concerns about being justified, about how we can see the fault in others without seeing our own imbalances and flaws can overshadow our ability to deal kindly with each other. There seems to be a shocking lack of humility at the root of so many relationships in our common life together. There is too often a concern about our own salvation, rather than how the way we live our lives and align ourselves alongside our neighbors affects them. We praise ourselves for our self-righteousness, and decry other people’s perceived flaws, congratulating ourselves for not being “like them.” Yet this lack of empathy undercuts claims of being righteous in the first place. One of the wisest pieces of advice I was ever given was a reminder that we never know the hidden battles other people are fighting, so to always try to be kind.
In this coming Sunday’s gospel, we hear the familiar story of the “Pharisee” and the tax collector praying in the temple. One of them prides himself on living a blameless life—apparently blameless so that he can blame others for their failings. The tax collector acknowledges his sin. Yet it goes further: the righteous one’s focus in his prayer is himself, not God. The tax collector acknowledges his sin, and prays to God for mercy.
Our own efforts to deny our own ragged edges and claim justification without a heaping dose of God’s grace are mere delusion. The self-righteous one thanks God that he is not a notorious sinner like that tax collector, and the minute that prayer is formed, he is condemned by it. When we look at another person, one very much different from us, and immediately make a snap judgment about them even though knowing nothing about them, we make the same mistake that that self-righteous man makes when seeing the tax collector.
It’s when we change our focus from ourselves that we can realize that we rely not on ourselves, but on God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we have to shame ourselves, but at least be open to realizing that we can always improve our relationships with our fellow-beings, attempting to acknowledge our common journey toward being called to a humble spirit of repentance. What if we started with encouraging others in their particular struggles, aided in no small part by acknowledging our own? Our challenge begins with letting go of being justified.