In one of my classes back in seminary, the professor put on a video for us to watch. It was from a psychology experiment. There were five people in a room, and they were passing a ball back and forth. We, the class, were supposed to count how many times the ball was passed in the course of the video. So the professor turned on the video, we all watched and counted, and then when the video ended he turned off the T.V. and asked “raise your hand if you saw the man in the gorilla suit.”
Y’all, I definitely didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit in that video. But when we re-watched the clip—now that I knew he would be there—there was totally a guy in a gorilla suit that walked literally right in between the five people tossing the ball back and forth. It was totally nuts that I didn’t even see him the first time we watched it.
Turns out, this is a phenomenon that happens all the time. When we need to focus on one thing—like counting how many times a ball is passed—other things will fade into the background to the point that our brains literally erase them from our awareness. It’s why people who get into car accidents changing lanes claim they didn’t see the car—since the other car was going about the same speed, their brain perceived it as being stationary and therefore not necessary to notice.
We actually see the world differently based on what we prioritize noticing.
Jesus has had a lot to say about priorities the last several weeks. The parable of the rich fool and his barns helped us question how to prioritize God’s abundant blessings. He was pretty explicit about priorities when Jesus declared our treasure would be where our heart was. And last week, Jesus challenged us by reminding us that the gospel will divide people when some prioritize its mission and others don’t.
Well, today we hear about priorities once again.
The synagogue leader clearly had his own set of priorities that were different from Jesus’. The law of what could and could not be done on the Sabbath was a really important part of the Jewish conversation in the first century. In fact, Jews were known for three things in the ancient world: their dedication to one god alone; their dedication to strict food laws; and their dedication to the weekly Sabbath. God made that day holy, after all, and there was intense debate about what that meant for what Jews could and could not do that day.
So the synagogue leader was less of a villain who abhorred the healing of a woman on the Sabbath and more like an otherwise really faithful Jew who simply saw any kind of work—healing included—as breaking the Sabbath Law instituted by God. He even makes room for the woman to be healed, just as long as it’s not on the Sabbath. As long as they followed the Law to its letter.
But Jesus has different priorities. This woman was a human being, worthy of the dignity all people possess. To make his point, Jesus reminded the synagogue leader and people who thought like him that they untie their animals on the Sabbath so that they can get a drink of water—and aren’t people worth more dignity than animals? Prioritizing the woman’s dignity helped Jesus see her rather than a set of rules.
And so the woman was straightened up after eighteen years of being bent over. Jesus restored her ability to be a full part of the community, restoring her ability to look others in the eye, restored her ability to be involved in the life of her neighbors. But just as much, Jesus straightened up the synagogue leader. He gave him the insight to re-prioritize and see his neighbors first, before he saw the Law. Jesus gave the synagogue leader the gift of coming eye-to-eye with the dignity of his neighbors in need.
This whole episode may seem like a distant argument over what to prioritize when it comes to the Sabbath, but it’s much more than that. Jesus is in a long and ongoing discussion in Luke’s gospel about how we are called to read the Law, and how we are called to prioritize the spirit of the Law over its letter. It’s a lesson in seeing human beings first, then interpreting what the Law requires. But it’s not just the Torah Law that Jesus is pushing us to re-prioritize.
Especially outside of our own circles, it’s easy to frame our discussions of whole groups of people based on their relationship to the law. Incarcerated people are readily judged for breaking the law, rather than asking what would cause someone to break the law in that way. News of protesters can easily become a question of whether their protests are legal or ought to be legal, rather than what they’re protesting. Even our discussion of children in cages at the border is too readily framed by insistence that “their parents broke the law.”
But they’re all human beings. And Jesus calls us to prioritize the dignity of human beings.
Jesus called the synagogue leader to prioritize the dignity of the woman’s humanity over the requirements of the Law. Jesus healed her by straightening her up to see her community, to be reunited with the wholeness she once had, to lift her up from the limited sight that she had when she was bent over. And Jesus invited the synagogue leader to healing as well—granted, in kind of harsh terms—to be healed of his mismatched priorities, to be lifted up from his limited sight of others, to be restored to wholeness in the community by seeing the community as human beings first.
And Jesus invites us to re-prioritize too. He invites us to set the law in the background and see our neighbors as human beings first. And when we do that, when we take on Jesus’ priorities, when we start seeing people, we’ll see the kingdom start showing up in our midst. Because we see the things we prioritize.
Thanks be to God. Amen.