Have you ever re-read something–perhaps something you’ve read numerous times–and something grabs your attention as if you had never seen it before? That’s happened to me a number of times while reading the Bible, and I know it happens to others. Well, recently I met with a biblical counselor to address some issues in my life. He began our session by saying that somebody once did a study of questions asked by Jesus in the gospels, and Jesus’s most frequent question was, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Although I have read through the gospels numerous times, I have to say that this made quite the impression on me. I needed 1) to ask myself what I wanted to achieve through counseling, 2) to understand that my spiritual help must come through Christ, and 3) to believe that Jesus is able and willing to answer my request. As it turned out, the next morning my planned Bible reading was Mark’s gospel, chapter 10, verses 35-52. And–you guessed it–in this passage Jesus asks this very question.
Not once, but twice:
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:35-52)
I’m not the type to make claims of God speaking to me, but it felt as if Jesus was asking me, personally, “What do you want me to do for you?”
But as I pondered this passage, I had to reckon with the fact that in the above passage Jesus answered these two requests differently. In the case of James and John, his answer was, in essence, “No, I will not do this for you.” In the case of Bartimaeus, the answer was, “Yes, I will do this for you.” Furthermore, humanly speaking, we would be tempted to think that the first request was something Jesus could have done easily in that it required no “miracle,” whereas healing a blind man might seem impossible to those who doubt that miracles are possible, or are at least rare. But just the opposite was the case. What made the first request impossible was that Jesus lived his life on earth subject to the will of the Father. It was the Father’s prerogative to choose who would sit at Jesus’s right- and left-hand. So for Jesus, it was impossible to make this choice himself, first because his will is always to do the will of the Father, and second it is impossible for him to sin.
So would this damper my confidence that Christ bids me to ask him for something? What confidence should I have that Jesus will say yes to my request? I might ask for the wrong thing. One thing I note, is that Jesus would not have been surprised by either of the requests. After all, the Gospels report that Jesus regularly knew what people were thinking before they spoke. Yet, Jesus encouraged John and James to ask, even though he would have known that his answer had to be no.
But that wasn’t the only reason that Jesus had to decline their request. Jesus explains to his disciples that his kingdom requires a different kind of leadership from leadership as exercised in the kingdoms of this world. John and James seek after greatness. In fact, Jesus would have them become great, but greatness in the kingdom of Christ comes through humble service. And for that reason, Jesus must first answer “no” to John and James in order to say “yes” to something better for them. Jesus would make them his apostles: servant-leaders in the foundation of his church.
And this is good news for us. When Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” there is no limitation on his ability to do something good for us. There is no impossibility in the sense of a situation being beyond his ability. True, Jesus cannot be inconsistent with his own character or act apart from the will of God, but even his “no” does not prevent him from answering our request with a better “yes.” That he is willing and able to do. In fact, Jesus said he came to serve. Yes, serve us. Serve me. He also said he came to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus has already accomplished that through his atoning death on the cross. And if Jesus would do that for me, there is nothing for my true good that he will not also do for me. So I will ask in the humble and joyful expectation that he has a “yes” for me.