'What do you want me to do for you?' Jesus puts exactly the same question to Bartimaeus in today's gospel as he put to James and John in yesterday's gospel. He often encourages us to pray to the Father in his name, asking simply and straightforwardly for what we want. So Bartimaeus asks in that way, and so too do James and John.
But the reaction to the requests in each case seems very different. Bartimaeus asks for the obvious thing, that he might see. We might even wonder why Jesus needed to ask the question: surely what the blind man will want is to see. But there is a deeper level to this, as there is in John 9 where we read about a man who was blind from birth. Because it is also about the kind of seeing we call 'faith' which enables a person to 'see' Jesus not just in his physical reality and presence but for who he is: the Lord, the Saviour, the Son of God, the One sent from the Father.
Bartimaeus is in touch with his own simple need. His desire, expressed simply and honestly, meets with a response from Jesus that is wider and deeper than his desire. At the end he not only receives his sight, he also 'followed Jesus on the way'. He had become a disciple.
James and John are already disciples but struggling to stay with Jesus on the way. They are further on in the journey than Bartimaeus, already to be counted among 'the holy ones' who recognise that Jesus is a prophet sent from God. But, as today's first reading says, 'even God's holy ones must fail in recounting the wonders of the Lord'. It seems that there are new moments of blindness to be experienced along the way, even by those who can see physically and who, up to those moments, had been able also to see spiritually.
'He plumbs the depths and penetrates the heart; their innermost being he understands'. In our innermost being we draw back, inevitably, from the destination to which Jesus is leading us. In our innermost being we recoil from the brightness and precision of the light which his truth shines into our hearts. We can say then that the two conversations are exactly the same. Jesus asks what he can do for people. They tell him honestly. He responds from the full truth of their situation and this means one thing for Bartimaeus setting out on the journey of following Jesus and another thing for James and John who are already well advanced on that journey.
To ask to see is always good. To ask to sit alongside Jesus in his kingdom is also always good. The difficulty is that we have some idea what the first request means whereas we do not understand what the second one means. There is a cup to be drunk, a baptism in which to be immersed, a passion to be undergone.
Let us begin with the truth we do know, no matter how humble, and with the blindess of which we are aware, no matter how physical. We will be led, inevitably, into a deeper blindness, a more brilliant light. The way to stay on course is always to answer the question honestly. 'What do you want me to do for you?' Well, what is it? For today? Say it out simply and straightforwardly, and let's see where we are on the journey.