The Saint Mark Sandwich

The Evangelist weaves two stories together to give us a set of important messages. A sermon for Proper 8b.

Proper 8b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

A month ago I spoke about different characteristics of the different Gospels. I noted John’s tendency to record long dialogue scenes, such as that between Jesus and the Samaritan woman or Nicodemus. Today we have a long reading from Mark, and it is a good illustration of one of the characteristics of his Gospel.

I’ve mentioned before Mark’s interest in moving the story along, and his frequent use of the word “immediately” — twice in our Gospel passage this morning — as well as the obvious fact that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. But another feature of Mark’s Gospel is something known as the Saint Mark Sandwich. This doesn’t involve bread and luncheon meat; it is a narrative technique, a literary device.

We have a prime example today: the account begins with the synagogue leader Jairus begging Jesus to heal his little daughter. But on the way to the elder’s house, a sick woman touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed of her disease. Then the story of Jairus and his daughter resumes, leading to her being restored from what we would most likely call a coma.

So this is a Saint Mark Sandwich: the “bread” is the story of Jairus and his daughter, but the “filling” is that of the sick woman. For one thing this device keeps the story moving — in keeping with Mark’s brevity and immediacy. Jesus is always at work, Mark assures us, and something is always happening, and even on the way to doing one thing, something else will come up. There is an almost cinematic quality to this, like a technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Next time you watch a re-run of a film like The Birds, or Rear Window, or Psycho, notice this technique: Hitchcock will show you someone looking at something, then he will show you what they are looking at, then he cuts back to show the person looking at it again, perhaps reacting. This tells what the characters are seeing and feeling. More importantly it also shows you what they know or don’t know by their reaction to the thing they, and you, see — and this builds up the suspense that is the foundation for his films.

Saint Mark’s Sandwich serves a similar purpose: the “filling” of the sandwich helps us understand the “bread” and vice-versa. There is always some connection between the inner story and the outer story. In this case, both stories deal with healing, and that in itself is not so unusual in the Gospels. But Saint Mark gives us hints that there is more going on here than simply healing. He uses key-words to remind us that passages are linked, in this case, the word “daughter” to link the stories together. He also tells us that the woman suffered with this bleeding disease for twelve years, and then also mentions that the little girl is twelve years old. If this were a poem you would say that it rhymed!

This sandwich structure and the linkage of the repeating words in the two stories bind them together, and alert us to the fact that Mark wants us to see them as illuminating each other. So how do they do that — and what is the lesson can we take with this sandwich?

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Let’s first notice the “hinge” of the story, the very center — or to use the sandwich analogy, the mayonnaise: the key-word “daughter” links across the boundary from one story to the other. Jesus tells the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace,” and while he is still speaking the messengers arrive with the contrary word, “Your daughter is dead; why trouble the teacher further?” So in this seam in the stories we are confronted with healing and peace with death and trouble, and going (as he sends the woman on her way) and with staying put (the advice to let the teacher stay where he is).

Moving a little further out from this center of the story, we see that the woman herself did not want to trouble the teacher, just to touch his robe, but in the end she causes quite a bit of trouble; while on the other side of the hinge the messengers suggest not troubling Jesus but when he arrives he finds a commotion.

So the first thing Saint Mark wants us to take away from this sandwich is the importance of relationship to Jesus — highlighted by that word “daughter.” The bleeding woman wants to remain secret, but Jesus wants to be in relationship with her — it is not enough that she has been healed, he wants to know who it is that touched him, and he calls her “daughter” and sends her off with a blessing. Similarly, notice the intimacy with the little girl’s healing: Jesus keeps the crowds outside, and brings only the parents and his inner circle of disciples — Peter, and the brothers James and John — into the house with the little girl, whom he takes by the hand and addresses endearlingly as “Talitha.” So Mark is assuring us that healing is not just some magic act, not just some quick fix — but that Jesus wants an intimate, personal relationship with those he loves and heals.

Then there is that mention of the number twelve — a significant number in the Gospels — but remember that Mark mentions it twice, and that when hasty Mark takes time to tell us something he must mean to make a point. And the point here is that this woman’s disease began about the same time the little girl was born — and recall what it is that happens about the time a young girl reaches the age of twelve, and how under Jewish law a girl or woman is considered to be ritually unclean when she has her monthly period. This reminds us of how miserable this sick woman’s life has been for these twelve years; the constant bleeding has rendered her permanently unclean under Jewish law, unable to participate in the life of the community, perhaps even being barred from going into the synagogue — the synagogue of which Jairus is a leader — just in case you might wonder why that particular detail was included in the story! According to strict interpreters, a woman in her period was not allowed to enter a synagogue or, more important for our story here, to touch a Torah scroll. Yet here this woman ventures to touch the living Word of God himself! And when she does, her interminable bleeding stops — her uncleanness is removed.

For the little girl, on the other hand, her monthly flow will soon start — but for her it is a sign of life — that she is alive and has reached that age; she will be restored to her family, and become a young woman in her own right.

There is so much richness in this Saint Mark’s Sandwich — in case you can’t tell St Mark is my favorite evangelist — I hope I’ve given you at least an appetizer, and that you will when you get home perhaps take out your Bibles and look at some of the other accounts in Mark’s Gospel, and look for other sandwiches. But in closing — and I hope you bear with me for a somewhat long sermon since I’ll be away next week and I need to make up for that! — I want to note one more link between the two stories, because of the core message Mark wants us to take away. It is lost in our translation that we used today, and you might miss it otherwise, so I want to highlight it.

In the crucial hinge verses — the ones linked by the word daughter and the contrast between peace and trouble — Jesus tells the woman that her faith has made her well, and then also tells the leader of the synagogue not to fear but only to have faith. (That’s the way I’d translate it, because in the original faith and belief are the same word.)

So the message to us is to have faith, faith in Jesus who is with us in crowds and commotion but also in private and in secret; Jesus will heal us whether old or young, from chronic or acute conditions, whether we trouble him or simply reach out to touch the hem of his clothing. This is our living Lord, presented to us in this beautiful portion of Scripture from the hand of Saint Mark the Evangelist. He truly has, as Jesus commanded the little girl’s parents, given us something to eat: bread of heaven, words from the mouth of the Most High. Let us give thanks for such nourishment.+