Eating a Gospel Hamburger

Mark 3:20-35

Palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Now, you might think I’m geeking out when I say that these things are cool—palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms—especially if you don’t know what they are.  “Oh dear,” you might be saying already, shifting uncomfortably in your seats as my captive audience; “the preacher’s going off on some pedantic tangent again, making some esoteric point that no one really cares about except him.”

And if you are, well, I can’t say I blame you.  But give me a minute.  This “pedantic tangent” will bear on the rest of what I’ve got to say.

That said, I return to my (perhaps esoteric) point: palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Palindromes are words, or strings of words, spelled backwards the same as they are forwards.  One-word examples include: “Hannah” (my daughter’s name); “mom”; “dad”; “radar”; and “deified.”

String-of-word examples include: “M’adam, I’m Adam”; “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” (from Teddy Roosevelt days); “Sit on a potato pan, Otis” (a personal favorite); and (one I once made up in a friendly competition) “Loop a red nun under a pool.”

I think palindromes are cool because they’re fun.  They are clever, orderly, and symmetrical.  There’s a focal point in each, something like an axis around which the word or string of words revolve.  In the word mom, the M and M revolve around the O; thus making the O a point of focus.  What’s the axis in the longer example, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!”?  Yes, the letter C.

I also mentioned that hamburgers are cool.  And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, for hamburgers are easily accessible to all.  Why, right here in Yuma we can drive down 16th Street and see an In-N-Out Burger on one side and a Five Guys Burgers directly across from it!

But the reason I think hamburgers are cool has little to do with how they taste.  Rather, hamburgers are a sort of visual palindrome.

You’ve got a bun; some stuff; a patty; some more stuff; and another bun.  Turn it upside-down and it’s essentially the same thing as it was right-side-up!  A visible palindrome!

Granted, it’s not an exact palindrome.  The top bun is not exactly symmetrical to the bottom bun.  Also, the stuff in between is usually not totally symmetrical.  It may be that the vegetables are above the patty and the condiments below.  But, generally speaking, we’ve got symmetry, order, and focus when we’ve got a hamburger in our hands.  And the focal point—the axis around which the sandwich revolves—is the patty.

So then, palindromes are cool; hamburgers are cool too.  But, though hamburgers are like palindromes, they’re not as precise.

Which brings us to chiasms.

Chiasm is the name of a certain literary form, or structure, that is symmetric, focused on a specific axis, or focal point.  An author might want to bring home a major point.  Before getting to the patty of the argument, however, she offers a lesser point, something attractive and maybe even enticing (like a soft, fluffy, freshly baked bun).  Whether or not the reader (or eater) is aware, this is not actually the main point.

She’ll get to that soon.  But before, she offers another, an even more tantalizing, taste-bud teasing subpoint, the condiments.  And now the reader (or eater) is thoroughly hooked.

And so the time has come.  Now, here, at the proper place in her argument, she offers the meat, what she’s really wanted to say all along.  It’s the focal point, the axis around which her mouth-watering argument revolves.

Even now, though, she’s not done.  Now that the meat of the argument has been tasted and otherwise considered, the author returns to a variation of her second subpoint, the vegetables—and maybe a slice of gruyere cheese—in order to bring the focal point to bear more strongly upon her complementary yet nevertheless significant subpoints.

But even now she’s not quite done.  There’s still the top bun!  So the meat of the argument must be considered again, now in light of the first subpoint and its variation.  And when it is, at last, the reader finds himself content and happy, with satisfied literary tastebuds and tummy.

In the world of literature we say chiasm looks like this: A-B-C-B’-A’.  But to me it looks like a hamburger.  And I think it’s cool.

Incidentally, many psalms are chiasms.  And, on a larger scale, Augustine’s Confessions is one great chiasm.

Anyway, all this is to say we encounter a chiasm in today’s Gospel passage. Think of it as a Gospel hamburger if it helps.  But this chiasm is important to note.  For through it, Mark is giving us readers a clue.  There is a focal point, an axis around which the passage revolves, which Mark wants us to take note of.

Jesus and a crowd are inside a house.  The buns of this passage—the A and A’—are Jesus’ family.  At the beginning of the passage (v. 21), we read, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for the people were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind.’”  Now go to the end of the passage.  There we read the radical—maybe even unsettling—statements about Jesus’ family being outside; yet Jesus says that those with him inside, those who do the will of God, are his family.  A and A’, or the buns.

Next, we see the condiments and the vegetables of this passage—the B and B’—in the contrast between Beelzebul and the Holy Spirit.  (In v. 22) Scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by demonic forces they call Beelzebul; whereas a little later (in vv. 28-30) Jesus says that all will be forgiven except blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  The condiments and vegetables here are contrasting spiritual forces, yet complementary in that they both focus on the spiritual.

And this brings us to the patty, the meat of the passage—Section C in terms of literary form.  What is the main point here that Mark wants us Gospel hamburger eaters to know?

Remember, this passage starts with Jesus’ family being outside of the home and wondering if he’s gone out of his mind; followed by religious leaders accusing him of demon possession.

Now Jesus says these words:

  • “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 . . . is divided, he cannot stand.”

What is the main point of this passage?  Anything divided against itself—whether kingdom, household, or person—will not stand.

If Jesus is indeed throwing out demons by a demonic power, as the scribes accuse, then the kingdom of demons will fall.

And if Jesus is in fact out of his mind, as his family wonders, his household will be divided.

And if Jesus is out of his own mind, he is divided against himself; and he will fall apart as an individual.

But what if he’s not?

What if, instead, Jesus is of sound heart, soul, body, and mind?  What if everything he teaches and preaches is true?  What then?

What if his household truly consists of those who are completely unified with him, of those who do the will of God—and not his blood relatives?  What then?

Or what if Jesus actually is casting out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit through God the Father, and not through some demonic power?  What if Jesus really is a part of the triune, indivisible God?  What then?  Eh?

Maybe then—just a thought—those who deny that Jesus is divine, who say that he was just a wandering mystic or just a good teacher or just insane—maybe to deny Jesus’ deity is what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the case, there’s the meat of this passage. But, admittedly, meat by itself is too Spartan.  That’s why we dress hamburgers up—most of us anyway.

As a brief aside, I had a burger the other night at Prison Hill Brewing Company.  It just might have been the best burger I’ve ever had.  If you’re into this kind of thing, it has onions, mushrooms, and a patty all drenched and sautéed in red wine.  Delicious!  Anyway, back to my point: we like to dress burgers up.

So, what can we learn today from the other layers of this Gospel burger, from the condiments and vegetables and buns?

Just this: a caution.

From today’s passage and many others we know, two groups of people come to mind.  There are those who stand for Jesus, who follow him unreservedly as Messiah; and those who stand against Jesus.

On the one hand—the stand-for-Jesus hand—we see tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and sinners.  Outcasts and vagabonds accompany Jesus wherever we see him.  His disciples, too!—largely uncouth commonfolk, uneducated fishermen.  Yet none of these people questions Jesus.  None of them says he’s out of his mind, or that he’s possessed by a demon.

Then there are those in this passage who stand against Jesus.

It’s easy for us to think in terms of good guys and bad guys.  We love Jesus, we say; so we’re obviously the good guys.  We’re obviously like the riff-raff in this story, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, and the other sinners and outcasts, right?  We’re not like the bad guys in this story—like the scribes and the insensitive family members—are we?

But wait a minute!  We’re not outcasts.  We are the religious leaders.  We are the church.  In fact, we define the church today.  And so, whenever we think we’ve got it right when the others—the bad guys—have it wrong, we kick them out; or we ourselves leave and form a new congregation!

We’ve also known Jesus for a long time—some of us for a very long time.  He’s family to us!  So we know things about him that other, newer believers, don’t know: what he really meant when he said his hard sayings.  We know what he really meant, what he’s really about—or what he would be about if he were here in our midst today.  So we form organizations to promote what we’re sure we know: “traditional family values,” for example.

But wait a minute!  In reality, most of us align much more closely with the family members and scribes of this passage than with the riff-raff.  We know Jesus.  He’s family.  We’ve become comfortable with him.

And thus we end up opposing him—and each other!  We don’t mean to do it.  We often don’t even realize we do it.  But we do.

And, doing so, we divide.

A kingdom, a household, a person, or a church divided against itself will not stand.

When it comes to following Jesus, don’t be one of the religious leaders or family members left outside at the end of the story.

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