Matthew 27:11-26 (NRSV)
Pilate Questions Jesus
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Barabbas or Jesus?
15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified
24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
“Give us Jesus Son of Abba”.
It’s what the mob shouted. I think we all like to think we would be on ‘the right side of history’. We probably like to think if we were in the mob in the days of Jesus of Nazareth we would have advocated for him. We would have asked for Jesus Barabbas instead of Jesus Barabbas. Wait, what? Well, apparently the first name of Barabbas was Jesus. Origen didn’t like that Barabbas’ first name was Jesus as surely a sinner could not share the same name as the Son of God so he made sure it was taken out of the biblical text but it’s there in early manuscripts;
Jesus Son of the Father.
Barabbas means Son of Abba. Isn’t that fascinating?
So here we have a baying crowd and, in front of them, stands Jesus Son of the Father and Jesus, Son of the Father. Both these men were similar in so many ways, not just in name.
Both were revolutionaries
Both were heroes to the lowly and an enemy to the powers.
Both had plenty of followers.
Both were arrested for being a threat to the Roman occupiers and the crux is that while Jesus was seen as a type of Messiah figure, Barabbas most likely was seen in this way too. A man of guile and guts who would reclaim the territory for his people, to free the Jews from Roman control.
Who would you choose?
It feels like this is a question we are faced with daily….who do we choose? It may seem relatively simple in hindsight but is it? Think of our theology on justice or war or violence or think about whether or not having a flag in your church is a good idea? Who do we pledge our allegiance to?
Barabbas represents nationalism, revenge, retributive justice and violence. Sadly so does much of our theology, whether that’s our eschatology, our atonement theory, our allegiance to a flag and our declaration that our country is a Christian nation and, therefore, God justifies our wars (he obviously hates 'their war' – whoever they are). The way of Barabbas is far more akin to much of Christianity than we care to realise. It’s why Miroslav Volf nails it when he says:
“Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth, and justice." (Exclusion and Embrace)
The way of Jesus is the way of peace and reconciliation. The violent ways of Barabbas were not, in fact, revolutionary. When we take a look at the state of our world today, we see that the ways of violence are nothing new. Violence begets violence, begets violence. Jesus, the son of Abba was a true revolutionary for he, like his Father, rejected and continues to reject the ways of violence. The cross being the ultimate example of a God who would rather die for his enemies than kill them.
As we start the journey in to passion week may we know that we cannot straddle two paths, we must choose one. We must choose the way of Jesus or the way of Barabbas. It’s hard, so very hard but the cross shows us that the only way we can change the world is to lay down our lust for retribution and vengeance and to choose the path of peace, enemy love and reconciliation.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.