What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

by The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 10:46-52.

Our Gospel story today is the final healing miracle in Mark’s Gospel: Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, comes to Jesus, and Jesus restores his sight. And what I find especially remarkable about this last miracle in Mark is the way Jesus makes Bartimaeus an active participant in his own healing, the way Jesus empowers Bartimaeus to take an active role in his own salvation.

At the beginning of the story Bartimaeus is sitting in his accustomed place, by the side of the road, outside of Jericho, listening as the travelers go back and forth. He hears a crowd coming, and when someone nearby mentions the crowd is for Jesus the famous healer, he begins to shout at the top of his lungs “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And despite the crowd’s best attempts to shut him up, Jesus hears Bartimaeus’s cry, and Jesus calls Bartimaeus to him. And hearing that call, Bartimaeus springs up, and throws off his cloak – which he had spread out in front of him to collect the coins of his begging, so throwing off the cloak means throwing away his entire day’s proceeds; in fact, it means throwing off his whole life as a beggar – he throws off his cloak and comes to stand before Jesus. Already, just by calling him, Jesus has opened up the space for Bartimaeus to take an active role in the mercy he wishes to receive.

Then Jesus calls Bartimaeus to take an even more active role. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

Now on one level that seems like a perfectly silly question. What Bartimaeus wants is obvious: he’s blind; he’s a beggar; he wants not to be that anymore. It would be easy enough for Jesus to acknowledge the obvious and say “You’ve asked for mercy. I have mercy. You can see.”

But that would leave Bartimaeus, in a way, out of the loop; that would make Bartimaeus merely passive, with no way of engaging his own active self in becoming the whole person he wants to be. So Jesus gets Bartimaeus involved: by asking “What do you want me to do for you?”, Jesus is opening up the space for Bartimaeus to come into relationship with Jesus, to be open and honest and forthright with Jesus, to put his one greatest desire on the line for Jesus, risking and hoping and trusting that Jesus will accept him and his greatest desire as they are. That disarmingly simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?”, is a summons to Bartimaeus to take a personally active role in envisioning and naming the future he wants to become real.

And Bartimaeus answers the summons: “My teacher, let me see again,” he says; and Jesus responds “Go; your faith has made you well.” Jesus reveals that Bartimaeus’s own active faith has been a constituent factor in his healing, that God’s grace and Bartimaeus’s faith together have made Bartimaeus well. The miracle is accomplished; Bartimaeus’s vision happens; and what makes the miracle remarkable is the way Jesus empowers Bartimaeus to be an active participant in his own salvation.

And on that level this story speaks to us about much more than just a healing miracle, as wonderful as the healing miracles is. On that level this story speaks to us about discipleship – and specifically, I think, it speaks to us about prayer. This encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus serves as a kind of invitation to us, when we pray, to name before Jesus what we really want; to trust that Jesus will accept us and our greatest desires as we are; and to let our faithful prayer make us active participants in our own salvation.

You know, sometimes I think we are too polite in our prayers. Sometimes I think we feel like we must only bring to God what is best in us, the noblest aspirations, the most spiritual feelings. I think sometimes it’s even worse for us Episcopalians: we have such a beautiful Prayer Book, we have such wonderful liturgy, that I wonder sometimes if we don’t end up feeling like prayer ought to reach a high aesthetic and artistic standard – and of course most of us can’t pray that way just spontaneously. So I wonder if we don’t sometimes self-edit our prayers to make sure we ask for only the things we are supposed to ask for.

But what God wants from us in prayer is not just that we ask for the right things. What God wants from us in prayer is us. God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to be in conscious and intentional relationship with God. God wants all of us: the spirit and the sin, the aspiration and the embarrassment, what is best about us and everything else, too, all the stuff that isn’t good but could be. God wants to heal us and make us whole – and God cannot do that with us unless we are willing to bring all of ourselves to God in prayer, unless we are willing to be like Bartimaeus, who hears Jesus ask “What do you want me to do for you?” and is not ashamed to answer what he truthfully wants.

A long time ago, when I was a very new priest, I was on a prayer retreat, and the retreat leader had us do an imaginative prayer exercise. We imagined that we were in a shop, where the shelves were full of life choices and career options and personal attributes – anything we could think of that we really wanted for our lives. And we were to search around the shop until we found something that we really wanted, and then take it the shopkeeper to find out what it would cost. And we were told to imagine that shopkeeper was Jesus, and we were to tell Jesus what we wanted, and to imagine Jesus replying to us, and from that imagined dialogue would unfold our real prayer.

So I found something I thought looked good, something noble and spiritual, and I took it to Jesus, and Jesus looked at it, and Jesus looked at me, and Jesus said “Is that what you really want?”

And I said “Well, what I really want is not to feel so afraid all the time.” What? Where did that come from? I didn’t want to pray to Jesus about being afraid! I wanted to pray about being wise and insightful and a great theologian. But what I said was “I really want not to be so afraid all the time.”

And Jesus looked at me and said “We can do that. But the cost is you’ll have to take that mask off.”

And I realized then that I was wearing a mask, and I had been wearing it all along. I imagined it as a painted porcelain mask, that fit very tightly to my face but that was completely inflexible and never revealed a real feeling. And it had painted on it a big, bright smile – a big, bright “Nothing is wrong! Nothing is ever wrong!” smile. And Jesus said that if I wanted to not feel so afraid, I would have to take the mask off.

And what my intellect figured out from my imagination was that the more I tried to project the image, to myself and to the world, that nothing was ever wrong, that everything was always okay, that I could do anything and meet any need, and I never made mistakes, and there was never any reason to criticize me, and everyone should always like me – the more I tried to project that image, the more afraid I would be that something would come along to make that image crack. The only way to stop being afraid of not looking perfect was to admit right up front that I was far from perfect.

As soon as I figured that out it seemed absolutely obvious, and I wondered why I’d never thought of it before. Sometimes you have to pray your truth, your less than noble, less than spiritual truth – sometimes you have to answer Jesus when he asks “What do you want me to do for you?” before you even know what you really want. And sometimes you have to keep on answering that question as you grow and change and Jesus helps you become more like the person you really want to be. Sometimes in prayer Jesus calls you to be an active participant in your own salvation.

And how does Jesus ask you that question today? As you come before Jesus in prayer, right here in this Eucharist, in the prayers of the people, in the confession of sin, in the great thanksgiving, what do you want Jesus to do for you? What deep movement of your soul animates the recitation of these beautiful words today? What real longing of your heart craves to be nourished by holy food and drink? What open place in your prayer is the place where Jesus can empower you to be an active participant in your own salvation today?

Jesus called Bartimaeus to ask what he really wanted, and Bartimaeus had the faith to answer that call, faith to let his work and God’s work work together to heal him and make him whole. The good news for us today is that we can have the faith to do that too. Amen.


  1. Shirley Ruedy says:

    Thought provoking. Thank you.