Jesus and his disciples are leaving the town of Jericho when suddenly there is a loud commotion on the side of the road.
A blind beggar named Bartimaeus is yelling at Jesus, pleading with him for help. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he shouts again and again.
People tell the beggar to be quiet, but he only shouts louder. “Jesus, have mercy on me!”
The shouting attracts Jesus’ attention, and he calls for the blind man to come to him.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.
I have always thought that was a silly question. The man is blind, he’s a beggar, he’s sitting on the side of the road hoping that people passing by will toss a coin into the cloak spread before him.
Why does Jesus bother to ask Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do for him? The man is blind – he must want Jesus to give him sight. That’s obvious, isn’t it?
* * *
Years ago, as I was teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Thailand, I noticed that one of my favorite students was squinting to see the blackboard, even though she sat in the front of the classroom.
“This child can’t see,” I thought.
Recognizing an opportunity to do a good deed, I immediately went into action. First I went to the principal’s office and told him about my student.
“Yes,” the principal said. “The child probably can’t see well. But her parents are rice farmers. They don’t have much money, and they have a lot of children. They can’t afford to buy her glasses.”
Undeterred by the principal’s explanation, I vowed that my student would be able to see. With her parents’ permission, I took her on the bus to the largest nearby town where her eyes could be examined by a doctor.
When the doctor confirmed that the young girl was indeed very nearsighted, I happily bought her a pair of glasses, and watched with joy as she marveled at the new world around her.
The next week the student wore her new glasses every day. Whenever I saw her, I felt great, knowing that I had given this child the gift of sight.
As time went on I noticed that whenever the girl was in my class, she wore her glasses. But when she was in other classes, or at lunch, or on the playground, the glasses were gone. Within a few weeks, she was not wearing them at all.
I was dismayed. I had spent a significant portion of my small Peace Corps salary to buy the glasses for my student. Now it seemed my gift was unappreciated. I didn’t understand what was wrong.
Then one day as I watched my students playing, I realized that none of them wore glasses. In fact, no student – not even one – in the entire school wore glasses.
And I suddenly remembered that day when I was about 10 years old and got my first pair of glasses.
The amazement and delight I felt at being able to see things like individual leaves on a tree for the first time was tempered by my embarrassment at needing glasses when most of my friends did not wear them.
The truth is I hated my glasses, and couldn’t wait till I was old enough to wear contact lenses.
Now I realized why my student had put her glasses away. They had enabled her to see, but sight came at the cost of being different from everyone around her. The price of seeing was too great.
And suddenly I realized that I had never asked the child if she wanted glasses. I had assumed that I could fix this child’s problem by giving her the gift of sight.
After all, it was obvious that’s what she needed.
* * *
Jesus, the rabbi, the good teacher, asks Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus does not single Bartimaeus out for unwanted attention with this question. When Jesus hears Bartimaeus’ cries, and sees the blind beggar, he does not immediately swing into action, relishing the opportunity to do another good deed, to add another miracle to his resume.
Jesus hears the pleas of the blind man, and Jesus stands still. And out of that stillness he says, “Call him here.”
When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus has summoned him, he throws away the cloak that for years he has spread before him to collect money and he springs to his feet, not with the timid, hesitant movements of one who is blind and unsure of his way, but with the certainty of one who knows that although he is blind he is about to see his Lord.
And he goes to Jesus.
Jesus, the good teacher, asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Not let me show you want I can do for you. But what do you want me to do for you? What is your deepest desire?
Bartimaeus is sure of his answer.
He does not cling to the security of his familiar infirmity. He is not afraid of being made different. He does not fear the possibility of new life before him. He has already cast off his identity as a blind beggar along with his cloak.
His deepest desire is to be healed, and he answers Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again.”
And immediately he does.
In this story, the gift of sight is not an embarrassment. It is liberation, and healing, and new life – because it fulfills not some need of Jesus to be able to heal, but the deepest desire of the blind man to be made whole.
Bartimaeus in response becomes a disciple. He follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.
Jesus shows us that true healing is not a result of simply trying to fix a problem, even an obvious one. True healing comes from compassion, from listening to the true needs and desires of another human being.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks us in the stillness. “Lay before me your greatest needs. Tell me your deepest desires. Tell me, and I will make you whole.”