This passage raises some fundamental questions about Jesus and his opponents. Which of them is really living in darkness, whether they recognise it or not? And who can cast light on the situation and bring glory to God?
Sometimes, as with the choice of David as the new king of Israel, which is today’s Old Testament reading, things are not as obvious as they might first seem. Perhaps what we need, as we thread our way carefully through life's many challenges and pitfalls, is the discernment to recognise what is right and the integrity to do it.
Jesus makes clear here, as he does elsewhere in the Gospels, that congenital disabilities are not anyone’s fault. They’re just an inevitable bi-product of evolution. This was a controversial idea at the time, but I guess it’s a pretty commonplace assumption now.
However, John still sees an element of determinism in this story. In his view, Jesus’ meeting with the blind man has been programmed into the unfolding pattern of events ever since the beginning of the universe.
In a sense this conclusion was inevitable. If we believe - as John’s Gospel asserts eslewhere - that Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection were all determined by God before the universe began, then it follows that every chapter of his life was also mapped out, including this encounter with the blind man. Everything that took place in his life, every miracle and every meeting, was designed to demonstrate God’s power.
At one time we might have gone on to say that the same is definitely not true about spiritual ignorance. John Wesley famously said that everyone can be saved from sin and can know that they are saved. However, that affirmation has always been disputed and is perhaps not quite as easy to defend as it might have seemed even twenty or thirty years ago.
On the radio recently I listened to a discussion about freewill, and believe me there’s a huge debate raging about how free we really are to make any choices in our lives - even about such humble things as what to choose on the menu at a restaurant - because who we are, and what we decide to do, is certainly affected by our genes, by the way our mind works and by our upbringing.
Take the example of someone with autism. Their choices are certainly far more constrained than other people’s. A little boy with autism might bite one of the childcare workers looking after him at school or nursery, but no one today would dream of telling him off whereas another child might be dealt with quite severely for doing the same thing. We make allowances for people who have autism.
And, of course, if we make allowances for people suffering from behavioural disorders like autism, shouldn’t we also make allowances for people who have large appetites. When they eat an extra slice of a delicious cream cake, or put on too much weight and need expensive hospital treatments, is it really their fault? Or what about people who have anger management problems? If they lash out at someone and break the other person’s nose, should they be taken to court or sent to see a psychiatrist, because maybe they’re not totally responsible for what they do? Where are we supposed to draw the line between decisions that we’re free to choose to make, and decisions which have been mapped out for us and which are hard - or even impossible - to avoid?
Most people, of course, do want to believe that we have some moral autonomy - that we are free to make certain decisions. Without that idea there could be no punishment for crime. There would be no point in paying tribute or giving awards to people who are exceptionally good or kind, and no amount of moral education in school would make children and young people behave any better.
Even so, some religious people remain deeply pessimistic about our freedom of choice - the more extreme followers of John Calvin would be a case in point. Calvin, who was one of the original Protestant reformers back in the sixteenth century, taught that human beings are unavoidably sinful. There is nothing we can do to prveent ourselves from disobeying God’s will. But God has divided human beings into two groups - the people he has decided to rescue, in spite of their sinfulness, and the ones who are doomed to remain forever ignorant of his love and power. Calvin likened this to the choice a potter makes when she fashions a lump of clay. One lump may be destined to become a vase for flowers, another to become a chamber pot. Once God has decided how we will turn out, there is nothing we can do about it.
Calvin went further. He said that none of us can ever be certain whether we are part of God’s elect, the people who are going to be saved from sin, or whether we belong to the rest of the human race destined to be cast into outer darkness. But this was a bit too pessimistic for most of his followers, who tended to look anxiously for signs that would reassure them that they were going to be all right. Going to church on Sundays looked hopeful to them. Reading the Bible and praying seemed like good signs, too. Doing what the minister said was encouraging sign. After all, why would God let people do any of these things if they were actually ignorant of his purposes and devoid of his grace?
Staying in bed all day and being lazy or slothful looked bad. In contrast, working hard for a living looked hopeful, so long as hardworking people weren’t greedy or selfish and didn’t exploit their fellow workers. Being kind and compassionate - well, surely they were positive proof that God’s grace must be at work in us, since hadn’t Calvin warned that no one is capable of doing good without God’s help?
John Wesley started life life as a follower of Calvin’s teaching, and he spent years trying to convince himself that God’s grace was at work in his life too. But eventually he decided that Calvin had been far more pessimistic than necessary. Yes, we are by nature so self-centred that we are incapable of doing God’s will and being truly loving and kind. But, God’s grace can make a difference to everyone’s life, not just to a favoured few. If we allow him, he can set us free to choose to become more like Jesus and, once we’ve made this decision, we can know that we belong to him.
If truth be known, the Bible is a bit ambiguous on all these points. It’s possible to select some verses which appear to support Calvin’s position. But it’s equally possible to find many others which appear to support Wesley’s more optimistic view. And today’s passage is surely one of them.
For example, why should Jesus have been sent to be light for the world, if human beings are mostly incapable of seeing the light? And why is it urgent to get on with his work since, according to the teaching of Calvin, nothing he does can change the outcome of a single person’s life?
The miracle witht he blind ma is mentioned in Mark’s Gospel as well as by John. Jesus has a little fit of spitting in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. First he either spits into his own hand and then rubs his spit onto a man’s tongue with his finger, or else he spits directly into the man’s mouth to cure a speech impediment. And then, in this story, he spits on - or puts his saliva on, a man’s eyes to cure his blindness. John says that he made a paste with his saliva and used it like an ointment.
John says that the miracle happened in Jersualem, and that the man washed his face in the Pool of Siloam. Mark says that it happened in a considerably more out of the way place - Bethsaida in Galilee. We can’t know where it really happened, or whether indeed there were two very similar miracles which happened in different places. But for John the miracle fits into a pattern of controversy stories where Jesus ends up arguing with the Jewish authorities about his mission.
In Mark’s version, as well, the miracle seems to happen on an ordinary day, whereas in John’s Gospel it definitely happens on the Sabbath - thereby heightening the sense of controversy. Jesus has done some work on the sabbath, by making an ointment and spreading it on the man’s eyes. ‘Is that permitted?’ the Pharisees ask.
Well, actually, it’s yet another part of this story where there might be room for debate. If the man was likely to bump into Jesus again, on another day, then perhaps it was wrong for Jesus to heal him on the sabbath because it wasn’t strictly necessary. But if they were unlikely to meet again, and this was the man’s one chance of being healed, then the Jewish Law would certainly encourage them both to go ahead, even on the holy day. Of course, Jesus does find the man again - after he’s been expelled from the synagogue for defending Jesus - so perhaps the Pharisees had a point!
The whole controversy element of the story is the other thing which is missing from Mark’s account. Only John tells us about the prolonged dispute which the miracle seems to have caused, first with the man who had been healed, and then with his parents and finally with Jesus. Sometimes John implies that the dispute in the story was only between Jesus and the Pharisees. Sometimes he talks disparagingly not just about the Pharisees, but about the Jews.
Mark’s Gospel also contains disputes between Jesus, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. But if John has heightened the tension it is perhaps because - by the time he wrote his Gospel - the relationship between Jewish people and Christians was getting much worse. Shortly after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Roman authorities in the year 70, some synagogues began to expel Jewish Christians and denounce them for claiming still to be Jewish. This wasn’t universal. In other places, Jews and Christians continued to mix and even worship together for another 300 years, but in John’s community a decisive and very acrimonious split had already happened. Is this hostility between the two faiths read back into his account of Jesus’ life? If so, it could explain why John presents the Jews as wilfully refusing to believe, first that the man had actually been born blind, and then that Jesus is capable of doing anything good.
Of course, a convinced Calvinist would argue that the Jewish leaders in Jersualem had been born ignorant of God’s will and were incapable of being changed, because God’s grace was evidently not at work in them. But here Jesus seems to come down on the side of John Wesley. The Pharisees, like all of us and like the blind man himself, have the capacity to see the truth. Indeed, they already claim to know what God wants. So they are, in Jesus’ view, deliberately closing their minds to the light which he has brought into the world, whereas the blind man has chosen to open his mind to Jesus, as well as having his eyes opened by him.