In the movie, ‘Groundhog Day’, the selfish and arrogant TV reporter played by Bill Murray gets stuck in time. We never find out why or how – but every morning at 6.00 am Murray wakes at the same time in the same place, and on the same day – the same things happen and everybody else keeps doing the same things – the only thing that changes is what Murray himself does – naturally he finds this all a bit alarming and goes through a phase of trying to end it all in extravagant ways. But no matter what he does to himself he keeps waking up to the same cheesy music at 6.00 am on Groundhog Day – it goes on long enough that eventually he develops a sort of routine – must be at this street corner at such and such a time to catch the little boy who’s going to fall out of the tree, take a cup of coffee to the drunk in the alleyway because otherwise he’s going to freeze, waitress in the café drops a stack of dishes at such and such time unless Murray’s there to help, and so on. Along the way he takes piano lessons, and apparently he has to relive Groundhog Day hundreds and hundreds of time because he starts barely able to play chopsticks but by the end of the movie he’s playing Tchaikovsky, as well turning out heart-rendingly beautiful ice-sculptures and learning not to be such a self-centred so-and-so. The time loop ends, naturally, when Murray has been sufficiently transformed and humbled, a radiant-looking Andie McDowell falls in love with him and he wakes up late the next morning – the day after Groundhog Day.
I guess it’s a poetic way of making the point that we keep making the same mistakes until we stop being self-centred, until we’re open enough to be changed and transformed by the needs of others.
[Funnily enough, earlier this year Foxtel – best known for its endless re-runs so presumably without seeing the irony of it – spent weeks and weeks playing repeats of Groundhog Day on TV1.]
Anyway, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is having a Groundhog Day. There’s something he needs to learn. In just a couple of places, in Mark’s gospel, we read the actual Aramaic words that Jesus uses – ephphatha – which means, ‘be open’. Probably because there’s something particularly significant going on with these words. But it isn’t so easy, even when you know what it means. Ephphatha. Whose ears need to be opened?
In this text, Jesus is tired. According to Mark he has just been rejected in his home town of Nazareth. He has heard that John the Baptist has been beheaded. He has fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He has walked on water and stilled the storm. He has been criticised by the Pharisees and given it back again with interest. He has had enough. He wants to get away for a while. He wants to go where no one knows his name so he enters Gentile territory. Fair enough, really.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ plans for a well-earned holiday come unstuck. Somehow this Gentile woman from Syrophoenicia – up in what’s now Lebanon – this unknown woman with a sick child, hears about Jesus and comes to beg that he will heal her little girl. Sounds like a minor annoyance – but one well known theologian claims that this woman changed the world.
Something I think we tend to forget, is that Jesus was a real human being. Jesus was a Jew, a product of his time and culture. He thought and behaved like a first century Jew. Jews of Jesus’ time were prejudiced against Gentiles, especially these near relatives to the north who - the way Jews saw it - had abandoned proper worship in the temple. They had abandoned the biblical dietary laws. Like dogs, it seemed, Gentiles would eat anything. Gentiles were seen as second-rate people.
So when this Gentile mother comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter we might be shocked at what Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's food and feed it to the dogs." You know what, even if we’re thinking, cute, tail-wagging puppy dogs, this is an insult. Even more so considering the only dogs you’d be likely to come across in the peasant communities of Jesus’ day weren’t cute, they were generally wild, diseased, scavengers.
So for early Christians this was an embarrassing text. Jesus is actually being prejudiced here. Some biblical scholars have tried to soften it up, suggesting for example that Jesus was just joking, or that he was trying to test the woman’s faith – is she going to be open enough – is she going to be ephphatha? But I don’t think we can actually get around the fact that Jesus was a product of his culture and he didn't really like Gentiles much. He saw his mission and ministry focused on the Jews. After all, they were God's chosen people.
And this woman changed Jesus’ attitudes. Her desperate situation made her persistent enough to endure being insulted. She had to trust in Jesus because there was no other help anywhere. Most people even today don’t respond too well to being called a dog. But she does and her response changes her life, changes her daughter's life, and changes the world because it also changes Jesus. This woman’s persistence turns a light bulb on in Jesus’ head and he has an ephphatha moment. It’s a quick and clever come-back: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
Jesus hears in this woman's desperate wit something he had not known before, had never imagined. And now Jesus goes from hearing the woman with his ears, to hearing with his heart.
I wonder, is it possible that right here in this episode, we’re seeing Jesus opening up into a fuller understanding of what it actually means, this intimate relationship with God that he has always known? That when Jesus begins his ministry he doesn’t yet understand everything he is going to have to understand? That he isn’t yet as inclusive as he’s going to need to become? But in this unlikely place, at the words of this unlikely witness, this Gentile woman, Jesus hears with his heart and his whole understanding of who he is and who he is to become begins to change. A chapter earlier, in Mark, chapter six, Jesus has performed the first miracle of feeding – the feeding of the 5000 in Jewish territory. Next chapter, in chapter eight, still in Gentile territory, Jesus is going to demonstrate by the feeding of the 4,000 that God’s love doesn’t stop at the border. Right here, in chapter seven, we see Jesus himself learning to cross boundaries, learning something about the inclusiveness of God.
Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most. No one can be excluded. The need of this Syropheonecian woman has penetrated Jesus’ closed cultural perspective, he has become ephphatha. After being changed by this woman, Jesus encounters a man – presumably also a Gentile - who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Jesus puts his fingers into his ears, spits and touches the man's tongue with it and says "Ephphatha" – be open! - and the man's ears are opened and his tongue is released so that he is able to speak and be understood. Which is also a pretty good description of what has just happened to Jesus himself. All of this is very good news for Gentiles like you and me.
It isn’t easy being ephphatha, though. It’s not easy for Jesus to step outside his own cultural conditioning, and it isn’t easy for us. Being ephphatha can mean taking a risk, it generally means crossing boundaries, stepping outside your comfort zone, being prepared to look at things from a different angle. It also means being able to look at yourself honestly, where you’ve come from and where you’re heading, being prepared to learn from your past in order to move forward. A lot of the time – both as individuals and as a church - we find it safer and easier to keep reliving the same old routines of our own personal Groundhog Day where everything is predictable, though not actually very exciting.
What, I ask myself, is Groundhog Day for me? Or perhaps I should ask, who? Because when we find ourselves cycling around in a time loop, stuck in a holding pattern instead of moving forward into where God wants us to be, it’s always because there’s someone’s needs we’re not open to, someone’s voice we’re not hearing. Whose voices have I been screening out, and how would it change me if I heard them? But as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know – and hindsight is a wonderful thing. More to the point, I guess, is how to become ephphatha? How to practise receptiveness, how to practice being open to what God wants to teach me today? Partly, I think, it’s about our basic orientation – learning to listen means firstly, expecting that no matter where we are, there’s something God wants us to notice, there’s something or someone God wants us to be open to.
How does God want me, today, to become ephphatha? The answer to that question is the direction in which God wants me to grow.