January 29, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:15-26.
Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called [Jesus] Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.
Matthew added a number of details to this account that don’t appear in the other gospels: the first name of Barabbas, the message from Pilate’s wife, Pilate’s washing of his hands, and the crowd’s assumption of responsibility for Jesus’ death.
‘Jesus’ was a common Jewish name of the time. It’s interesting that ‘Barabbas’ means ‘son of the father.’ Matthew has used a number of ironic subtexts to contrast the two figures. It’s important to keep in mind that scholars believe that Matthew’s church was originally comprised of Jewish Christians that became largely Gentile Christians. There was considerable enmity between Matthew’s church and the Pharisees, which became the dominant voice of Judaism particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew’s church was also careful not to upset the Romans who had asserted complete control of all aspects of life in Palestine. So, Matthew was disposed to blame the Pharisaic Jews for Jesus’ death and, thus, treat Pilate and the Romans sympathetically.
Here we have Jesus Barabbas, the son of a human father, and likely a revolutionary seeking to re-establish God’s kingdom on earth for His chosen people through violence perhaps with grand dreams of installing himself as its secular king. He is contrasted then with Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, who sought to establish God’s kingdom on earth through personal transformation by teaching non-violence, forgiveness, and submission to the world’s rulers. Predictably, people chose violence over peace, Barabbas over Jesus the Messiah.
The chief priests and elders had assembled a crowd of people who supported them, symbols of the status quo of power and authority, and took their cues from the chief priests and elders. It’s unlikely that there were many of Jesus’ followers in the crowd in this small, confined courtyard. This was all a mockery of justice just as the trumped-up charges justifying Jesus’ arrest and condemnation had been. Matthew has used it to his own end to emphasize the divide and distinction between his church and the Pharisaic Jews. The consequences over the centuries have been horrific.
Pilate had no use for the Jews he governed. He looked down upon them, he denigrated them and their customs, he butchered them. He was a cruel, heartless steward of Palestine for the Roman empire. The ritual of washing his hands to be absolved of the blood about to be spilled was not a Roman custom. It was a Jewish ritual described in Deuteronomy. It’s highly unlikely that Pilate would have utilized this symbolic practice to free himself from the crime about to be perpetrated. He was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death; the blame could not be shifted.
Still, I think the point of the passage is that we are all much like the crowd clamoring for the secular and rejecting the spiritual. We think we can enter God’s heavenly kingdom but ignore the demands to establish HIs kingdom on earth. We too eagerly choose violence as the means to an end instead of non-violent recourse. We can justify the blood of innocent children and others by trumpeting the right to bear arms instead of seeking a land governed by love rather than fear. We’ll gladly suffer the consequences; just give us what we demand. Just as in that time, leaders and followers collude to have their own way rather than submitting to God’s will.
We are all guilty — civil and religious leaders and the general public alike. We all what we want now without regard for the consequences. We all want Jesus Barabbas, not Jesus the Messiah. Those who believe in God of whatever branch of faith think that heaven is far off in time and space. God’s desire is for us to bring about His kingdom here and now, though. We can’t wash our hands of responsibility for that. We have to work for it within ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, our world. Of course, it seems impossible and unrealistic, like a fairy tale. As long as we think like that, it is. In failing to take responsibility, we are just like the chief priests and elders, Pilate, and the crowd.
Through all of this, Jesus stood silently by, watching in sadness. He accepted the revilement, the humiliation, the violence, and death. He took it upon himself to bear our sins to His Father so that we might be forgiven and given another chance to make the choice to work for the kingdom now. And another chance and another. He has never turned His back on us; He just keeps hoping the best in us will win out from time to time. Fortunately, it does from time to time.