“What do you want me to do for you?”
The story of blind Bartimaeus is a classic gospel story. The son of Timaeus is a blind beggar who sits by the roadside, just as blind and otherwise-handicapped people would usually do in the first century. At the side of the road, Bartimaeus would do what he was able to do in order to earn a living. He would beg. And passersby with a few coins or a bit of food to spare would toss them his way… until Jesus came along and changed everything!
Actually, it wasn’t really Jesus that changed everything for Bartimaeus. All Jesus did was pass by fairly close to where Bart was begging. But Bartimaeus had heard about this Jesus, and he decided to cry out to Jesus for help.
That was an amazingly brave thing that Bartimaeus did… crying out to Jesus for help. It was brave because it opened him up to a lot of flack from the other people in the crowd. It was brave because he risked being ignored or rejected. And it was brave because, if perchance, this Jesus could actually help him to regain his sight, his life would be suddenly and radically changed. For the better, we might assume, but it would also mean he would need to get a job and earn a living in some way other than begging. It wasn’t going to be easy, by any means.
As modern readers of the Gospel, we may not even notice what a dramatic change has just happened in this man’s life. We just hear it as another story about Jesus healing someone because Jesus is awesome! Or we may even spiritualize the story, and argue that it’s about the spiritual blindness of Jesus’ disciples, and how Jesus can help them to finally “see” and understand what his ministry is all about, if they will only ask in faith.
But rather than dismiss Bartimaeus, as if his story is just a parable to teach us about spiritual blindness… and rather than focus only on how wonderful Jesus must be to help such a poor, wretched, blind man… I would like to suggest that we look to Bartimaeus as an example and model of faith and discipleship.
What an amazing man Bartimaeus was! Even though he couldn’t see, when he heard that Jesus was passing by he started to shout: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And he was determined. Even when many people sternly ordered him to be quiet, he cried out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
As soon as he got the message that Jesus was calling him too, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus. No wasting time and missing his opportunity!
And when Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus knew exactly what he needed from the Teacher. He didn’t want a hunk of bread or even a nice meal. He didn’t want some spare change or even a purse full of expensive coins. He didn’t want a cane to help him get around the neighbourhood without bumping into things. Bartimaeus wanted so much more. He wanted to be healed of his blindness. He wanted to see again and have his life transformed.
The blind man’s faith stands out in the Gospel, and Jesus remarks that it is his faith that has made him well, just as Bartimaeus is regaining his sight and making plans to follow Jesus on the way. Bart’s faith stands out especially because not everyone has that kind of faith. Not everyone knows what Jesus can do for them, and not everyone knows what to say when Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Just a little earlier in the chapter, James and John had asked Jesus for help too… not with their blindness (either physical or spiritual), but when Jesus asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” they say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Instead of agreeing to the request, Jesus tells James and John about how difficult and demanding discipleship is going to be for them, and he teaches them about being servants rather than rulers, about being helpers rather than kings.
All of today’s scripture passages proclaim the good news that God hears our cries for help, and that God has come into the world in Jesus Christ to heal and help us in our distress. God loves us, and God cares about our needs, and God desires to heal us and transform our lives.
But sometimes we are like James and John, asking for the wrong things. Sometimes we need to pay attention to those on the margins, to those that we would normally ignore, or silence, or at most pity with a few coins or a meal.
I’m think of a time some years ago when I encountered one such person in the community where I lived at the time. I had met him before, and he stopped by the church late one evening when a co-worker and I were just finishing up a few preparations for an upcoming meeting.
First he asked if he could just come in for a few minutes to warm up, and I welcomed him to have a seat on the bench inside the door. When I asked about his current situation, he told me that he would probably sleep at a bank that night… you know, in the vestibule beside the bank machines.
Then he asked if I had a bit of food, and we went down to the kitchen to see what we could find. I located some bread and cheese and carrot sticks, set them before him, and then tried to make my exit so I could finish up my work in the office next door.
But he wouldn’t let me go. He kept talking, and he started to tell me about an old friend of his that he had just heard had been killed in an accident. I listened for a bit, and expressed my condolences, and then tried again to go back to my work. But he stopped me. He said, “Wait! Could you sit down with me for a while? I just want to talk to you.”
I realized then that the food didn’t really matter, and the warmth of the church building wasn’t what he needed most either. In my haste, I was ignoring this man’s honest and true cry for help, for what he really needed – the care and concern of another human being as he grieved and struggled with the loss of an old friend.
I don’t know whether there was any healing for him that evening. If there was, it wasn’t because of anything wonderful that I said or did. It was because of his courage and determination to ask for what he needed, to cry out for help in the midst of his pain and confusion in the hope of healing.
The scriptures today assure us that God is much more attentive to our cries than a busy minister getting ready for a church meeting. And if Mark’s Gospel stories are any indication, then Jesus will not presume to know what we want or need from him, but will take the time and care to ask us, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Imagine if Jesus was standing in front of you right now, asking you that question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Could you answer? What would you say? It’s not that Jesus is like a genie who can grant us each three wishes, and he’s certainly not going to entertain any ridiculous requests for glory, or power, or prestige.
But what do you really need? What healing do you need in your life so that you can live fully and faithfully the life God has called you to? What transformation do you need in your mind or heart so that you can freely follow Jesus today and into the future?
You may not physically see him standing there, but Jesus is asking you today, “What do you want me to do for you?”
The author of the Book of Hebrews reminds us that, “Christ is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Not only do we pray for one another when we gather together in Christian community, but we are assured that Christ is praying for us to God the Father… and whose prayers could be better than his?
Already, Christ has done so much for us. Christ has lived for us. Christ has died for us. Christ has offered his whole self for our sake so that we might know and experience the depth of God’s love for us.
And still, Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” May we have the courage, the wisdom, and the faith to cry out and ask for what we truly need. And may we experience healing and wholeness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.