Maybe you know the story.
Jesus was on trial in Jerusalem of Judea. Pontius Pilate, the Judean Governor, heard the complaint. Jesus was acting like he was bringing a new Kingdom into the world. The Roman government put to death all such actors. But the evidence was vague, at best. Pilate’s wife tried to talk him out of executing or even trying Jesus at all.
Pilate had an easy out. All he would have to do, according to accounts in all four biblical gospels, is offer to release Jesus....... or else Barabbas, a hardened criminal, as a symbol of Jewish freedom on the Passover. Surely the people would choose Jesus. Pilate’s wife would then be happy, and so would Pilate.
That’s not the way it went down, is it? You likely recall that the people of Jerusalem voted for the release of Barabbas and the death of Jesus. Pontius Pilate, caught between what historians might judge as his fear of either a riot by the Jews or a lecture by the Mrs., opted for the latter. Better to hear the complaints of his wife at home than of his boss, Emperor Tiberius, in Rome.
So Jesus was crucified. Barabbas was free to go.
From such a reading of this story, two errors in judgment have occurred. First, it has been used to justify antisemitism among Christians, as if to exonerate Pontius Pilate and condemn the Jewish people who voted for Barabbas and not Jesus to be released into their midst on that Passover. Secondly, Christian theologians got ahold of this story and rendered it an allegory in which we all are guilty like Barabbas and deserve our own death. Only we get to go free because Jesus is crucified in our place as our “penal substitute.”
As I reflect upon this solemn season of Lent knowing that the crucifixion of Jesus is imminent in this Holy Week of our Christian tradition, and upon our Jewish friends who gather for Passover this evening (it is sundown of April 5th as I write this), I beg to differ with such foolish readings of this story of Jesus vs. Barabbas.
If indeed the Jewish people were truly privileged to choose between Jesus and Barabbas in Pilate’s Kangaroo Court that day, then the allegory is this. We are all the Jewish people.
We all prefer Barabbas.
I love how Charita Goshay, who writes for the Canton (Ohio) Repository, puts it. She writes, “The crowd shouted for Barabbas that day because truth demands certain things from us. It calls us to grow up, to stretch and re-examine our innermost motives and to make sacrifices when we’d rather not. We want a truth that doesn’t require anything of us. We prefer Barabbas because he doesn’t call us out. He lets us do what we want.”
And so we all prefer Barabbas over Jesus, who tells us the truth we’d rather not hear. The Kindom He declares is counter-intuitive to the kingdoms of this world. Its power is found in loving influence, not in fearful control. The weak are made strong and the strong are weakened, the blind are sighted and those who believe they see are rendered blind. The first are last and the last first. Enemies are loved. Executioners are forgiven. Those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake are found. And only the dead shall live on.
Such is the good news Jesus proclaims.
We don’t want to hear it.
And with Barabbas we don’t have to.
Barabbas lets us continue to believe that might makes right. That taking control is better than giving influence. That it is better to be feared than loved. That revenge is sweet. That retribution is just. That enemies are to be hated. That nice guys finish last. That bigger is better. And size is what matters.
Perhaps we don’t need a savior because we’re like Barabbas, but we need one because we are like those who preferred Barabbas over Jesus. We need a savior because we’re rather be conned by the criminal than confronted by the Christ. Or in Charita Goshay’s powerful words, “We prefer Barabbas because he doesn’t call us out. He lets us do what we want.”
There are many questions facing us as Christians this week. Surely one that hangs over us involves Jesus vs. Barabbas. Whom will we choose?