I’m always taken a bit off guard when Jesus, in the Gospels, asks people what it is that they want. Take Bartimaeus, for example. A blind beggar sitting along the side of the road that leads out of Jericho, Bartimaeus, upon hearing that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, cries to the Son of David for mercy. Jesus, after stopping in his tracks and calling the man up close, asks him the very open-ended, almost naïve question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) There are other times where Jesus is far more prescient, far more direct: the leading question to the sick man by the pool of Beth-zatha (“Do you want to be healed?” [John 5:6]); the pre-emptive declaration of pardon to the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends (“My sons, your sins are forgiven.” [Mark 2:5]); or even the extraordinary exchange with the man born blind, where Jesus says nothing directly to him before spitting on the ground, making mud, and anointing his eyes with it (John 9:6).

It could be that Jesus’ example with Bartimaeus is supposed to remind his followers that we ought not always presume to know what others want (especially people we’re trying to “help”). But it could also be that Jesus is attempting to draw out of Bartimaeus an explicit desire for precisely what Jesus has come to give him. Bartimaeus seems to respond the way Jesus would hope: he wants to see, and the very first thing he does with that gift of sight is to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. But not everyone in the Gospels has such a clear sense of what it is they should want. In response to the same question, James and John ask only for pre-eminence beside Christ in his glory (Matt. 20:21; Mark 10:36-37).

John’s own Gospel (curiously enough, given this story told by Matthew and Mark) very effectively identifies the ambiguity (at best) of human desire. Three times in this Gospel, Jesus asks an open-ended question very similar to his question to Bartimaeus, James, and John. The first instance of this question happens to be the very first words we hear from Jesus’ lips in the fourth Gospel. John the Baptist has identified for two of his disciples the Lamb of God that is walking before them. As the two disciples, having heard this, proceed to follow Jesus, Jesus turns and says to them, “What do you seek?” (John 1:38) These particular disciples give a commendable answer by asking where they might stay (or “abide”) with him: as we know from later in John’s Gospel, to “abide” with Jesus is precisely the disposition necessary for a fruitful vine-branch (see John 15).

But the objects of most of the people who are doing any “seeking” throughout John’s Gospel are not so encouraging. The people who come across the lake “seeking Jesus” after the feeding of the 5,000 come “not because [they] saw signs, but because [they] ate [their] fill of the loaves” (6:26). They are laboring for food that perishes, not for food which endures to eternal life. The authorities have made themselves incapable of believing in the Messiah because they “receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God” (5:44). They are “seeking” their own glory, speaking from their own authority (7:18). And the Jews, upset that Jesus should challenge conventions by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and enraged that he would dare to call God his Father, “seek” to arrest him (7:30; 10:39), to stone him (11:8), and to kill him (5:18; 7:1, 19-20, 25; 8:37, 40). In short, “men loved darkness rather than light,” and so they do not “come to the light, lest [their] deeds should be exposed” (3:19-20).

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Small wonder, then, that the next time Jesus asks his question, he is faced with a hostile mob of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, carrying “lanterns and torches,” lest they stumble in the darkness (18:3; cf. 11:10). It’s the same question he asked those first disciples, only this time he personalizes it: “Whom do you seek?” (18:4) The mob gives an answer that could have come from the most faithful disciple. What is the purpose of John’s Gospel, after all, but to persuade his readers to seek “Jesus of Nazareth?” (see 20:31) But it’s clear that the mob is seeking Jesus, not to “abide” with him, but to “wipe him out of the book of the living” (Ps. 69:30), to remove from their sight the challenge that the light of the world is to their lives. And so when Jesus identifies himself as the one whom they seek, and simultaneously exposes them to the blazing radiance of his divinity (“I am [he]”), they “drew back and fell to the ground,” recalling the disciples who “drew back and no longer went about with him” after Jesus made some difficult claims about the necessity of embracing — indeed, eating — his flesh (John 18:6; cf. 6:66). The mob is undeterred by this theophany, however. When Jesus repeats his question, they repeat their response, and proceed to seize him.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is a difficult pill to swallow, and he has clearly come, not to do whatever people ask of him (John evidently learned this lesson eventually), but rather to make people into different kinds of seekers than they (and we) usually are. Even some who believed in Jesus feared to confess that faith, “for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). That is our basic orientation as human beings: to seek our own glory rather than the glory that comes from God. We need to be taught again how to seek, what to seek, whom to seek.

Jesus asks his question one last time in John’s Gospel to a distraught Mary Magdalene weeping in the garden of his tomb. After she has turned from the radiant cherubim standing on either side of the empty slab (like the empty throne over the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by cherubim), she sees a man whom she mistakes for the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary is sorrowful, weighed down with tears of lament, like “a woman … in travail [with] sorrow, because her hour has come” (John 16:20), and so she can do no more than ask the “gardener” where he has taken the body of Jesus (20:15). Mary doesn’t know what to ask for; she only knows that she is weary and worn and sad. But Jesus pierces through her bitterness as the Good Shepherd who calls his own sheep by name: “Mary.” When Mary recognizes her “Rabbouni,” her sorrow turns into joy, joy like that of a woman who is delivered of her child, the “joy that a human being is born into the world” (16:21), the human being, the New Adam in all his recreated glory.

Most of the time, I don’t know what it is that I really want. I don’t know what it is I’m seeking. I hope that I am seeking Jesus of Nazareth, but it may well be that I’m seeking him more for my own complacent self-congratulation than because I actually want him, as he is, in all his terrifying radiance. I need him to teach me how to want, what to want, whom to want. Bartimaeus wanted to see so that he could follow him. The first disciples wanted to know where he stayed so they could abide with him. But Mary seems to suggest that you’re not really seeking him as you ought until you’ve acknowledged that you don’t know how, until you’ve wept for your sins and for the sins of the world that put to death its own light. The psalms tell me to “seek his face evermore” (Ps. 105:4). But Mary shows me that I will only be able to see his face through my tears … tears which, of course, he himself will wipe away.

Mac Stewart‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a mosaic by Fr. Marco Rupnik, S.J. in the the chapel of the Mysteries of Light in the National Shrine of St. John Paul II in Washington, DC. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

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The rite for the admission of a catechumen in the Book of Occasional Services begins simply with the question, “What do you seek?” The would-be catechumen replies, “Life in Christ.” This is, probably in most cases, an aspirational ritual, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile exercise, both for the catechumen and the community that hears the question and answer. Thank-you for calling our attention to this truly fundamental question.