As I've been reading, I've been struck by how often Jesus seems to commend people for boldly asking them for what they need. The first time I noticed it was this:
but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him [Jesus], and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Mark 7:25-30, NRSV
I'm familiar with this story but have always found it a bit distasteful, to be honest. I don't like the way Jesus refuses to help the woman because of her ethnicity or that, in framing his refusal, he compares her to a dog. Some people argue that Jesus only did that because he knew it would prompt her to answer in this way. He pretended to hold the views common to those around him in order to allow the case to be made that his 'good news' wasn't just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. I haven't worked this properly through for myself, but I do hope they're right!
Regardless, what impressed me this time was what Jesus' response. For saying that... The great teacher has come, a 'nobody' woman has asked for his help and he's said no. But the woman won't leave it at that and boldy pushes back against his 'no'. For saying that, Jesus gives her what she wants.
That's just not how I've been taught to approach God. I've been taught to ask for what I want, yes, but then to accept whatever answer he gives. But here Jesus commends bold and shameless asking - asking that wouldn't accept a simple 'no'.
Other people in Mark are also presented as boldly asking for what they need. In Mark 10, for example, we read this:
As he [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Mark 10:46-52, NRSV
Initially, Bartimaeus has to be bold just to get Jesus' attention over the clamour of the crowd - I don't read anything into that. But, when he is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks him what do you want me to do for you? I would have thought the answer was obvious - of course, the blind guy wants to see! But Jesus asks all the same, forcing Bartimaeus to boldly ask for what he wants.
I have a tendency to assume Jesus knows what I need - indeed, that he knows that better than I do. This story has encouraged me to put my wants and needs into words all the same.
Another story where Jesus seems to value bold requests (in this case, by noting their absence) is this:
And they brought the boy to him [Jesus]. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
Mark 9:20-27, NRSV
Did you see it? The father says if you are able to do anything... and Jesus immediately pulls him up on it, saying: If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes. For all that it makes sense for this man to say to a random healer if you are able (especially as, earlier in the story, we read that Jesus' disciples had already completely failed to heal the boy), Jesus seems not to be a fan. Given that when I'm praying, I know I'm not speaking to some random healer but to the God who made all that is, such caveats shouldn't have a place.*
* Although it's complicated as, in this time between Jesus' first and second comings, God has clearly chosen to restrict his activities in the world. So, whilst if you're able might not be appropriate it seems that if you're willing probably still is!
All of this, along with the sheer preponderance of healing stories in both Matthew (the other New Testament book I've read thus far) and Mark, has led me to pray for my own healing in a way I never have before. After all, it's something I want very much (although I find it hard to even picture), and it seems to be something God may well rather want, too. So I've decided to boldly ask for it.
That said, my prayers have been tempered by what I've drawn from one last story from Mark - one that occurs right near the beginning of the book:
When he [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Mark 2:1-2, NRSV
A man is brought to Jesus for healing (by some very bold friends, no less). Jesus does not heal him: instead, he says: Son, your sins are forgiven. It's only when people query whether he has the authority to do that that he actually heals the guy. The physical healing is presented as an after-thought: something that happened only to demonstrate that something much more important (the forgiveness of sin) had actually happened. So, whilst I pray for my own physical healing, I also celebrate and thank God that I have already received the healing he seems to hold in much higher regard: the forgiveness of my sins :-)