The light provided by restored vision is a gift indeed with many benefits but there is also the light of understanding which does not necessarily involve sight. In today’s Gospel reading we learn that disciples James and John, even though they can see Jesus, have not fully understood who Jesus is. They have a perception of him in the kingdom of heaven as an enthroned monarch and are very much hoping to share the glory of this enthronement by sitting on either side of Jesus enthroned. As Mark expresses it, they say to Jesus:’ Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’. Their perception may have had its origin in seeing Jesus as the Messiah presiding over a Messianic banquet. There is an association too between heaven and enthronement in the Bible in the Book of Revelation, which gives us the twenty-four elders ‘sitting on their thrones before God’. The elders, though, rather than basking in shared glory, fall on their faces worshipping God and singing his praises. This leads us to wonder what James and John have not understood about Jesus as they seek a privileged place in the kingdom of heaven.
What they have not grasped is that Jesus does not have the prerogative to determine status in the coming kingdom. He does not have it because in the divine hierarchy he is the suffering servant who has made himself a servant so that the Sons of Man may be the Sons of God. Thus in response to the request of James and John for shared glory he replies: ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’. So leadership means service. The suffering of the servant lies ultimately in the death on the Cross but that suffering is where the true glory lies and it is only by this means that Jesus can then ascend to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. We express this in the Easter hymn: ‘when I survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died…’. So in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’.
With regard to suffering, as Dorothy Sayers writes, in the Christian faith evil is real and perfection is attained through the active and positive effect of wrenching real good out of real evil. Then there is the suffering of missionaries who gave their lives for the proclamation of the Gospel.
It appears from Mark’s narrative that the remaining ten disciples were angry at the request of James and John for shared glory. Was this because they had a better understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant? Perhaps so. Their anger prompts Jesus to explain to James and John that greatness lies in servitude. In his explanation, Jesus illustrates his point by contrasting the greatness of servitude with the tyrannical rule over the Gentile Christians in Rome. Here we are given the audience for Mark’s Gospel, being a small community of Gentile Christians in Rome who had seen their leaders executed by tyrannical rulers and needed to hold fast to their faith. In the response of Jesus to James and John Mark takes the opportunity to reassure the Gentile Christians that their faith could remain steadfast in the knowledge of where true greatness lies. It lies in the humility of the suffering servant who stands in stark contrast to tyrannical rulers.
Having considered Jesus as the suffering servant now let us consider the nature of the kingdom of God. Here, again, James and John lack the light of understanding. As they seek privileged places in heaven they do not see that the hierarchy of God is based on dignity of service. Nor do they see, as Jesus teaches them, that it is not his prerogative to grant them places in the kingdom of heaven. What they can do, he says, is to drink the cup that he will drink and be baptized as he was baptized. The cup and the baptism concern his suffering and death which are for him alone but we can unite with him in the cup and the baptism. The association of the cup with suffering can be found in the Book of Isaiah where Jerusalem has drunk the cup of the Lord’s wrath and is to be met with devastation, famine and the sword. In Psalm 69 we have the association of immersion in water with suffering: ‘I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God’. What James and John might not also have perceived is that the glory of the kingdom of God is not just in the heavenly realm but, as Luke writes in his Gospel, the kingdom is within us here on earth. It is present where Jesus is present and exercising his influence.
All this presents rather a negative view of the disciples which Matthew in his Gospel attempts to offset. He does this by making the mother of James and John the one who calls for the shared glory. To further defend James and John we could say that they are learners who do not yet have a full understanding of the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. They call Jesus ‘Teacher’ and make the child like request to him ‘to do for us whatever we ask of you’. Jesus then takes on the role of schoolmaster to direct them towards a new way of thinking based on humility and suffering and servitude. We do not know from the Gospel narratives what the response to this teaching was but we can see what Jesus was pointing towards in his teachings.
Let me return to my starting point with the words used by the CBM ‘Let there be light’. There is joy in being able to see the world around you and there are many instances in the Bible of Jesus restoring people’s sight. Yet from today’s Gospel reading we have an affirmation that seeing does not always mean understanding. Nor does faith depend upon sight for ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and believed’.
So we have the light of vision, and the light of understanding but let me go to the Gospel of John for a final word on what light means. According to John the light was the Word becoming flesh which was to light all people. It is this light that enlightens us all.