“What do you want me to do for you?” is a common enough question. Used in multiple personal exchanges, it could be asked by a clerk of a patron or between colleagues in dialogue. It could be used casually between friends or spoken harshly in retort for misunderstanding. Whatever the context or mood, it is a question of clarification. On the one hand, it seeks to clarify the expectations of the one to whom it is directed. 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 a seemingly ordinary question Jesus asks more than once. In the Gospel of Mark, it is posed both to a blind beggar and to the disciples of Jesus.(1) The writer places the two instances right beside one another in a way that reveals the questioner as much as the expectations of the men being asked. Mark tells the story of the blind man, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, immediately following a revealing exchange between Jesus and his disciples. For the disciples, the question would no doubt have rung familiarly in their ears. But their answers to this question could not have been more discordant.
In the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus is walking with a large crowd when the blind man calls out to him, making something of a scene along the roadside: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He keeps crying and calling out to Jesus, though many sternly tell him to be quiet. Refusing to comply, he calls out all the more for Jesus, trying with everything in him to get the attention of the man about whom he had likely heard stories. Jesus stops and calls him, and the exchange begins face to face.
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. Given the persistence of the blind man’s cries for mercy and his debilitating condition, it seems strange, almost harsh, for Jesus to ask. And yet Bartimaeus, who sprang to his feet and tossed aside his cloak when Jesus called, doesn’t hesitate to answer the question, pleading once again to be healed by the one in his midst. “My teacher, let me see again.”
In the case of the disciples, the question rises out of a very different vision of the one in their midst. Similar to the beggar along the roadside, James and John call Jesus to themselves with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” So they clarify their desire, like Bartimaeus, without hesitation: “Grant us to sit, one on your right and one on your left, in your glory.”(2) Their request, which immediately angers the other disciples, is about positions of honor and power in the kingdom. Jesus tells them all that they don’t know what they are asking for.
We are not to miss the ironic juxtaposition of vision in these two very different requests—one for mercy and the other for glory. Unlike what he says to the disciples, Jesus does not tell the blind Bartimaeus that his request of the one before him is short on vision. Bartimaeus is seeing Jesus for who he is and what he has come to do—to heal, to love, to restore, to give mercy, to give sight. In asking for mercy, what is it that you want? The one who is blind asks in faith and believes that Jesus in his mercy will bring restored vision. He wants to be healed by the one before him. And Mark reports that immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and began following after Christ on the road.
The request for healing is a stark contrast to the request for glory and honor, but the starkest part of the contrast is in the disciples’ shortsightedness of Christ himself. Jesus makes explicit their lack of vision and clarity of the one standing in their midst. “What do you want me to do for you?” To ask this question gets at the heart of the requester’s expectations to be sure, but far more vitally it pushes back on our vision of the identity of Jesus himself. Jesus wants the disciples, who demonstrate their own form of blindness, to learn what it means to see and follow this king, who will be crowned not with glory but with thorns.
What do we want from Jesus? Is it to be left alone? Is it mercy and healing, glory and honor, or something yet to be named or identified, residing deep within the heart? Posing this question, Jesus certainly prods at our desires and compels our deepest answers. But he asks as one who set his face as a flint toward the suffering of the cross:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”(3)
“What do you want me to do for you?” is a seemingly common question probing for our deepest answers—answers we are invited to consider in full view of the crucified Jesus who asks.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) The story of blind Bartimaeus is found in Luke 18:35-43 and Mark 10:46-52. Matthew 20:29-34 actually suggests that there were two blind men asking to be healed.
(2) See Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-40.
(3) Mark 10:33-34. Tellingly, Jesus gives this description before either question—What do you want me to do for you?—was asked or answered.