What Do You Want?
What do you want me to do for you is a common enough question. It is implied in the question, how may I help you, used by store clerks and public servants. It could be asked by a clerk of a patron or between spouses in dialogue. It could be used casually between friends or spoken harshly in retort for misunderstanding. Whatever the context, it is a question of clarification. On the one hand, it seeks to clarify the expectations of the one to whom it is directed, and on the other hand, it seeks to clarify what action is required of the one who asks.
What do you want me to do for you is also the seemingly ordinary question asked by Jesus. It takes on a richer significance, however, as it is posed to the blind Bartimaeus and to the disciples of Jesus.(1) The gospel writers place the story of Bartimaeus immediately following a revealing exchange between Jesus and his disciples. But their answers to this question couldn’t be more different.
We do not know much about Bartimaeus. His name literally means, son of Timaeus. What we do know about persons with disabilities living in the first century is that they were completely dependent on the care and nurture of the society around them. Given that Bartimaeus is blind and given that he is begging on the street, it is likely that he had no living family members to care for him. Perhaps he heard that Jesus, the miracle worker, was coming down the street in his general direction because he cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
He didn’t just call out once, but made such a nuisance of himself that “many were sternly telling him to be quiet.” Yet, he refuses to comply and calls out all the more for the Messiah to have mercy upon him. Given the persistence of his cries for mercy and his debilitating condition, it seems a cruel irony for Jesus to ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” Couldn’t Jesus see his need? More important, didn’t he care?
Jesus, prior to walking in Bartimaeus’s direction, had just finished a conversation with his disciples, specifically with James and John who request that Jesus “do for us whatever we ask of you.”(2) Jesus had just described the way of the Messiah not as a political and military victor returning the fortunes of Israel, but as the way of suffering and death. He told them plainly of his own coming crucifixion. But the disciples did not understand. Instead, they argued about who would be the greatest in the Messianic kingdom. James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they replied, “Grant that we may sit in your glory, one on your right and one on your left.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking for.” Jesus explained that to request glory in God’s kingdom is to request the way of the suffering servant. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Those readers and hearers of this text in the early Christian communities would not to miss the ironic juxtaposition of these two request narratives—one for mercy and the other for glory. Jesus asked Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” to make his request explicit for those disciples to hear. In asking for mercy, what is it that you want? The one who is blind asks in faith and believes that the mercy of Jesus will bring restoration and wholeness. He wants to be healed of his blindness so that his sight is literally restored, and that he is restored to his community. The text tells us that “immediately he regained his sight and began following after him on the road” (Mark 10:52). He became one of the many followers of Jesus. He became a disciple.
Yet those who were chosen as part of the 12 disciples asked for glory and honor. Jesus wants his disciples, blinded by their own ambition for glory and exaltation, to learn what it truly means to see and to follow as disciples. By asking, what do you want me to do for you, Jesus makes explicit their self-aggrandizing desires and the demands of discipleship.
What do you want me to do for you? The same question is asked of all who read and hear these texts. By posing this question to all who would seek mercy, or to be healed of blindness, we are invited to follow Jesus as disciples, even though “following after him on the road” might involve taking a way we would not choose for ourselves.
(1) The story of blind Bartimaeus is found in Matthew 20:29-34 and Mark 10:46-52. Luke 18:35-43 actually suggests that there were two blind men asking to be healed.
(2) See Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-40.