If you have read the Gospel of Mark, you may well have noticed examples of what scholars call “interpolations” or, more playfully, Markan “sandwiches.” These are sections of the narrative where a story is broken into two parts and a second, seemingly unrelated story is inserted in the middle – thus resembling two literary slices of bread with the sandwich filling in the middle.
For example, in the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) Mark splits the story and inserts his account of the cleansing of the temple directly into the middle of the narrative (vs. 15-19). This literary technique is thoroughly Markan and when we compare parallel stories in the other Gospels (for example, Matthew 21:18-22 where the same story of the cursed fig tree occurs), we find that the same stories are not split in two as Mark has them.
Now, we may often be aware that Mark is making these narrative “sandwiches,” but we may not always realize what his point is in doing this. There is, however, a clear pattern in what the Evangelist was doing. Time and again we see that Mark inserts material that may seem different, but which powerfully compares or contrasts with the outer story and in this way teaches additional lessons we might not have thought about otherwise. Take, for example, the story of Jesus being anointed at Bethany which is inserted into the middle of the story of Judas’ betrayal, as we see in the following three paragraphs from Mark 14:
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly ... .
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (Mark 14:1-11).
We may not immediately see the direct connection between these two stories – or any reason to insert the one inside the other – until we notice the common denominator, which is money. In both stories Mark shows individuals going to extraordinary lengths either to get or to give money (or that which was of a great value specified in a monetary amount). Mark’s juxtaposition of the two stories makes it impossible to miss the difference between the attitudes of get and give exhibited by Judas and the unnamed woman, along with other details.
Even the small fact that the woman’s generosity was met with self-righteous scorn compared to Judas’ greed which was met with approval (Mark tells us the priests were “delighted” to hear his offer) adds another layer to the story. We see the depths of Judas’ hateful attitude and grasping actions precisely because they are shown in contrast with the loving attitude and generous actions of the woman who anointed Christ.
The contrasting details are easy to see in this example, but each Markan sandwich has its own reasons for the insertion of one story into another. It is our job as readers of the Word to read carefully in order to see what the lessons are that Mark is showing us in each case.