If Jesus was standing in front of you today and asked you the question: What do you want me to do for you? what would your answer be?

In the gospel of Mark Jesus asks this very question twice and both questions are interestingly found in close proximity to each other in chapter 10. In vv 32-34 Jesus has just told the disciples for the third time that he is going to Jerusalem to die. Immediately following this James and John come to Jesus with a special request:

And James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Him, saying to Him, “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 said to Him, “Grant that we may sit in your glory, one on your right, and one on your left.” (vv 35-37)

As you know, Jesus does not grant their request but instead proceeds to teach them about true greatness which is found in being the servant of everyone else just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve – a point Jesus will illustrate most clearly through his own death (vv 42-45).

The very next narrative in Mark 10 is the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Here our question occurs for the second time. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming his way he starts crying out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage, arise! He is calling for you.” And casting aside his cloak, he jumped up, and came to Jesus. And answering him, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to Him, “Rabbuni, that I might be able to see!” (vv 49-51)

 In this case Jesus grants the request and Bartimaeus was able to see and he followed Jesus on the way.

The fact that the same question occurs twice within the span of just a few verses should cause us as attentive readers to stop and ponder the significance of this repetition. The juxtaposition of two stories that both contain the same question is most likely not accidental but instead suggests a connection between the stories. So what is the author trying to tell us?

An answer starts to emerge when we consider the larger context of the gospel of Mark. A close reading of the text shows that Mark raises at least three very important questions in his gospel:

  1. Who is Jesus?

This question dominates the first half of the gospel. Though Mark has told us right in the first verse of his gospel who Jesus is, people are constantly wondering who this man is (Mark 1:27; 2:7; 3:21-22; 4:41; 6:2-3). Ironically, the only ones who know exactly who Jesus is are the demons! (Mark 1:24, 34; 3:11; 5:7)

In Mark 8 the question is finally answered correctly by a human being. Peter proclaims: You are the Christ! (8:29). This immediately raises the second question which is treated in the second half of the gospel:

  1. What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ?

As becomes evident rather quickly the disciples have a very different understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ than Jesus himself. They believe in a political Christ who will raise up an earthly kingdom in which they want to get the best positions. Service to others that may even involve suffering is not on their mind. Jesus, on the other hand, seeks to show them that he is the Christ precisely in his suffering (note that as soon as Peter gets Jesus’ identity right, Jesus starts talking about his death – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) which is the result of his willingness to humble himself and serve others. This misunderstanding on the part of the disciples explains the request of James and John in Mark 10. They have not understood what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. That’s why Jesus must explain to them again what the true nature of his identity is (10:42-45). Notice that that Jesus closely connects his own identity with that of his disciples. The reason he does so is because of the third question the gospel of Mark raises:

  1. What does it mean to follow this Christ?

The answer Jesus gives is clear: to follow him means to be like him and thus also to humble oneself and serve, even to the point of death. To illustrate this Mark uses the motif of the “way.” This motif becomes especially prominent in Mark 10. Four times the “way” is mentioned (vv 17, 32, 46, 52). It is the way up to Jerusalem. Obviously it is a literal way but it is also the way of suffering, the way towards Jesus’ death. It is on this way that James and John make their request to Jesus. They are on the way with Jesus but they have not understood the deeper significance of this way and what it means to follow Jesus on this way. This is where Bartimaeus comes in. He sits by the “way” (v 46). Like James and John, he also makes a request to Jesus: he wants to be able to see. This is interesting because Jesus has used the concepts of “blindness” and “sight” earlier in the gospel to illustrate the disciples’ lack of understanding (Mark 8:18, see also 4:12).

If we now put all the pieces together it seems that Mark has intentionally juxtaposed the stories of James and John and Bartimaeus in order to highlight the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples, but also the solution to this problem. When Jesus asks James and John what they want him to do for them they ask for positions in his earthly kingdom. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks for sight. Thus Mark seems to suggest that the answer of Bartimaeus is the answer that James and John should have given. They are in need of having their eyes opened, not literally, but figuratively and spiritually. Only then will they be able to truly follow Jesus on his way, like Bartimaeus does in v 52. The literal healing of Bartimaeus thus becomes an illustration and example for the spiritual healing the disciples and anyone else who wants to follow Jesus, the Christ, on his way, so desperately need!

If Jesus was standing in front of you today and asked you the question: What do you want me to do for you? what would your answer be?