“Jesus or Barabbas?”
Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion, B
Note: For all the readings from this Sunday, see http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/HolyWeek/BPalmSun_RCL.html
Holy Week is the story of rejecting Jesus as Messiah. At the beginning of the week, enough people believed he was the One that they welcomed him into the city in a triumphal procession. Much like Romans welcomed victorious generals and kings back from war, the people shouted hymns of praise for Jesus as he rode into the city on a donkey.
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
- Mark 11:9b-10
They hailed him as the bringer of “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” That wasn’t a metaphor. They envisioned a new king taking their country back from the Roman Empire. They wanted to be independent and sovereign again.
But by the end of the week, the propaganda of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees had won out. These Temple authorities had launched an all-out smear campaign against Jesus to turn the tide of the people against him. Judeans imagined that the Messiah would be both a spiritual and political leader of Israel.
Sure, lots of people liked hearing Jesus speak, but (the religious leaders argued) he couldn’t be a true spiritual leader if he didn’t defend Torah, God’s Law given in the Old Testament. He didn’t worship in the temple often enough. He didn’t make the right kinds of sacrifices. He didn’t follow all the extra rituals of purification. He ate with Gentiles, Samaritans, prostitutes, and tax collectors. In fact, the most famous visit he made to the Temple ended with him turning over the money changers’ tables and driving out all the animals they were selling. The argument could be made that Jesus disrupted the people’s worship more than he helped it.
Then there were the politics. Jesus may have been hailed as Messiah by some, but he didn’t look or act like any king they’d seen before. He wasn’t building an army. He didn’t defend himself from persecutors. He wouldn’t resist arrest. He didn’t defend himself in court. He accepted torture and abuse from both Jewish and Roman authorities.
And that’s where we find Jesus on Good Friday. He stands before Pilate after his sham trial with the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night. He awaits judgment from the Roman governor alongside other convicted criminals, including Barabbas.
“Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy 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 spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”
- Mark 15:6-15
The people who were there had a choice. They could have Jesus or Barabbas. Something changed for them from Sunday to Friday. The one who was coming in the Name of the Lord had failed. He seemed to be restoring the kingdom of David, but now he was set to be executed by foreign rulers.
I found a poem online that helps us see some of the things that were at stake in this choice. Louis Gander wrote this poem as part of a Christian poetry contest in April 2017:
“Give Us Barabbas!” by Louis Gander © 2017
What caught the attention of that obtuse crowd?
What made them determined? What made them so loud?
"Give us Barabbas!" Can you tell me why
the people had int'rest in that evil guy?
Was he more exciting and spectacular?
Was he their big hero - strong, muscular?
Could he break big log chains right off of his wrists?
And did he boast laughing- then shake both his fists?
Was his voice like thunder with tongue hard as steel?
Oh, was the crowd taken and how did they feel?
Was it because Jesus stood motionless there?
Was it because Jesus did not have a prayer?
Was Jesus too loving t'ward innocent youth,
Was Jesus judgmental in speaking the truth?
Was Jesus too caring with his healing hands -
or was it because He had much greater plans?
There's no rhyme or reason, so often it seems.
It boggles the mind to such endless extremes.
So why did the crowd have Barabbas set free?
And why was it Jesus who died... and not me?
Here we see some of the obvious differences between Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas had been a rebel who led a revolt against Roman rule. He was a fighter, headstrong and brave. He was someone who hurting, oppressed people could look up to because he fought to set them free. Jesus, on the other hand, kept preaching peace and humility. He was meek and kind to the hurting and critical of those in power. But when he had the biggest platform, he chose to stay silent and accept the punishment.
This choice cuts straight to the core of who we are today. Jesus or Barabbas? The one thing I disagree with in Mr. Gander’s poem is that there was rhyme and reason to the people’s choice. The question is: What do we want from God deep down inside? What is our true desire? Do we want love, peace, and reconciliation (and are we willing to suffer to achieve it)? Or do we want to continue the endless cycle of violence and war?
On Good Friday, the people made their choice. They thought, Jesus is no Messiah. He’s not the kind of leader we want to follow. At least Barabbas stands for the same things we stand for: revolution and freedom. Barabbas is our guy.
Blessed is the one who will win us back the crown of glory in imperial politics. Blessed is Barabbas! Blessed are the Ones who fight for us like big strong tough guys. Kill people who are weak. Silence the meek and humble. Destroy the peaceful who live with suffering. Blessed are the rebels and revolutionaries who will kill to get what they want. Crucify the ones who advocate calm, peaceful diplomacy. Crucify the ones who say that love is the answer. The only answer we want is a bigger stick than the other guy.
So Jesus is despised and rejected by the people. And that doesn’t mean that the 1st century Jews are especially evil people. I think if Jesus lived among us today, our society would kill him too. We face this choice between Jesus and Barabbas each and every day. Anytime we’re faced with injustice from government and society, we have to choose how to respond: love or hate? Peace or violence?
Now, this doesn’t mean that the church should remain silent and sit on its hands in the face of the world’s evils. There are many examples to faithful Christians who use the way of nonviolence to protest and challenge unjust authorities and systems. Look to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s wing of the Civil Rights Movement. Look to the recent Black Lives Matter rallies and protests. Look to yesterday’s Rally for Our Lives to protest ongoing gun violence and advocate for legislative change to protect the American people.
These are not violent uprisings, but peaceful demonstrations of the will of the people -- protect our lives, our dignity, and our rights. Jesus too spoke truth to power, and he remained steadfast in that truth even when it got him killed. Barabbas chose the quick, easy way, and Judea remained enslaved. But even if the revolution had been successful, Jesus’ way was better.
As followers of Jesus, God calls us to walk in love as Christ loved us, even giving himself up for us as an offering to God. But the truth is the way of peace is hard. “The gate is narrow and road is hard that leads to life” (Matt 7:14). May God give us the grace we need to choose peace over war today and always. Amen.
Gander, Louis. “Give Us Barabbas!” Published April 2017. Accessed 14 March 2018. https://www.christart.com/poetry/poem6506.htm