May 15, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news from Mark 15:6-15.
Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested. A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed. Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what [do you want] me to do with [the man you call] the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him.” Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.
Some interesting notes about this passage. Only the writers of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke make note of the custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover. There are no other historical references to such a practice. Barabbas in Aramaic means son of the father. An ironic fact or deliberate fabrication to underscore the contrast to Jesus, son of God the Father? Barabbas also was a revolutionary, a rebel who had committed murder. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of character that Pilate would willingly release from prison in favor of a man with no known record of violence. In fact, Barabbas represents the elements that provoked the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and its temple, which was happening about the time Mark was writing his gospel. Mark also transforms Pilate into a sympathetic figure when by all other accounts of the time he was a brutal, mercurial, murderous governor.
Do you want your king, your messiah, your deliverer? It seems to me that I am frequently asked that question. And just as frequently I answer, “No.” I don’t want Jesus to rule over me; I want to set my own rules. I don’t want to live nonviolently, forgiving my enemies, loving my neighbors; I want to keep and use my guns (figuratively) to enforce my own code of behavior. I want to glorify rebels like Barabbas instead of the one who obeyed his Father’s will at every decision point.
The contrast between Jesus and Barabbas couldn’t be greater; neither could the choice of the crowd. Too often I am the crowd and I want to efface the indictment of the innocent who remind me of my own guilt, my desire to enthrone my own will instead of God’s in my life. Instead of striving to transform my own life, I look for scapegoats for my sins. I blame others to cover up my own shortcomings. It’s so much easier to point my finger at others rather than examining my own life, my own motivations.
Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat for the Jews. Instead they chose Barabbas as the worthy one, the way of being that led to tragedy and death and the decimation of Israel. When we are inclined to shout, “Crucify him,” perhaps we should stop to consider what we are scapegoating. What motivates us? Which of our sins and shortcomings do we refuse to recognize? Who among us is immune to temptation and free of the taint of evil? What are the consequences of condemning an innocent to die, to be imprisoned, to be deported, to be cast aside? Those are the questions that Jesus poses when we are in a rush to judge and condemn, to nail someone to a cross.