Our weekly house church gathering is built around the practice of Lectio Divina. Yes, house churches can take many, many shapes, forms, and identities; many methodologies can be tracked in these intimate and sacred gatherings. House churches are as diverse as the communities from which they spring. This is a good thing! Our gathering centers upon group Lectio Divina, or the spiritual reading/praying of scripture. This particular spiritual practice is an ancient one. It is a spiritual practice dedicated to silence, prayer, scripture, and the individual engagement of God, in a group setting. It offers participants a time wherein they chatter less about God, and instead actually listen for God in extended periods of reading, re-reading, and silence. It is an awesome group experience.
Recently, our house church prayed and considered Mark 12: 28-34. This pericope comes to us as Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on an ass, curses a fig tree, ransacks the temple, explains the cursed fig to Peter and the disciples, and has his authority strategically challenged by a literal mob of religious elitists (Chief Priests, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees).
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Our group read, re-read, and prayed this scripture during our time together. It was an incredible experience, to say the least. This is such a powerful, yet simple - scandalously simple - passage that leads followers straight to the point of the gospel. Yes, Christianity really is that simple. We try so hard to make it hard. It is simple. This was the conclusion our group arrived at after our Lectio Divina, during our time of scriptural exhortation and conversation. We also ended with a little chat about the literary structure of the Gospel of Mark … and a characteristic of the gospel popularly referred to as “Markan Sandwiches.” Yep, “sandwiches!” Our Lectio Divina happened to be surrounded by Markan Sandwiches!
Literary Sandwiches in the Gospel of Mark
So, what is a Markan Sandwich? It is, more technically, a “chiasm.” Mark is supposed to be a very simple gospel, but this sandwich structure paints it as a literary work built upon a very intentional structure. It is quite fascinating. Throughout the gospel, the author begins a narrative topic, switches to another story, then concludes his original topic. Why? he gospel author is trying to make a serious point clear for his readers. Again, it is fascinating and obviously important!
The following examples are clear illustrations of this literary device we like to call “Markan Sandwiches.” Note: All scriptural references are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)
Color Legend: A sandwich is composed of two slices of bread and something between them, obviously. The “slices” from Mark’s gospel are highlighted in blue, for easy reader identification. The narrative “between the slices” is in italics.
Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” - for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Re-read Mark’s Gospel with Sandwiches in Mind!
Seriously. Read the gospel with this literary consideration in mind. Awareness of this literary construction will open up Mark’s gospel in a whole new way. What was the gospel writer trying to say by interspersing these divergent stories between larger narrative topics? Whatever he was trying to say, it must be important! So, read with both eyes open and listen for the ever-present word, touch, and call of Christ! Peace.