Jesus, Barabbas, and Pilate
We continue our journey today with Jesus through the last 24 hours of his life, beginning to walk with him the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, the way of the cross.
Last week we saw how in the early morning hours of Friday, Jesus was condemned to death by the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, for blasphemy.
But there’s a problem. Lacking the power of capital punishment, they now need to send Jesus off to one who has that power, the Roman governor, a man whose name – some 2,000 years later, we still all know, Pontius Pilate.
As Jesus stands before Pilate to be sentenced there is an important question I would like to ask. Where do you see yourself in this drama of life and death?
Let’s examine the four main characters in this story. In doing so we may discover where each of us might stand in this ancient version of “Law and Order.”
- Pilate: Not many of us, I would guess, would identify with a Roman governor. Pilate was the representative of Rome in a most troublesome outpost of the Roman empire. His success was dependent upon keeping the peace, and at that, like most Romans, he was ruthless.
The Gospels, however, portray Pilate as a man, who upon questioning Jesus, was not convinced that Jesus was a threat to anybody, certainly not the aspiring King the Jewish leaders portrayed. When Pilate asks Jesus, the Jewish peasant, beaten, bloodied, and bound, standing powerless before him, “Are YOU the King of the Jews,” we should probably hear a mocking emphasis upon the word YOU.”
The Gospels also portray Pilate as inclined to let Jesus go. In a generous offer, Pilate offers to release a prisoner, giving the gathered crowd the choice of which one: Jesus or Barabbas?
- Barabbas: Who was this Barabbas? Barabbas was what we would now label aa either a” freedom fighter” or “terrorist.” Barabbas believed in getting rid of the Romans by force and violence and had spilled blood to that end. Barabbas was the kind of guy the Romans loved to crucify. If there was a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, it was Barabbas who deserved to die.
Some of us may sympathize with Barabbas as somebody who tried to actually do something about the oppression and injustice they suffered under the Romans. Maybe it is his face that we se representing us in the crowd.
- Crowd: And the crowd? Who were they? Like some nebulous Greek chorus, the text doesn’t specify. Maybe they were the merchants whose tables Jesus had overthrown in the temple. Maybe they were those who disagreed with Jesus violation of the holiness code. Maybe they were activists like Barabbas who couldn’t stomach Jesus’ advice to “love your enemies and do good to those who mistreat you.”
Maybe they were just a temple “hangers-on”, sensing the taste of blood, like gawkers at a car crash. Were any of Jesus’ disciples among them? Can we see ourselves among them?
A mob – almost any mob – is a nasty thing. People, in mobs, act in ways individuals never would. Do you really think, if you had been there, you would have had the courage to yell Jesus name? If you were living in Hitler’s Europe, or Joseph McCarthy’s America, or amidst a lynch mob in the south, would you have stood up for those wrongly accused? Have you ever failed to stand up for a classmate or coworker or friend, being unfairly bullied by others? It takes a lot of courage to go against the crowd.
- Jesus: There is, of course, one final person with whom we might identify in this story. That is Jesus. Sometimes, it is possible to be innocent, be wrongly accused, and stand convicted. Sometimes, it is possible to stand up for what’s right, but be nailed to a cross for it.
There is the story of Fr. Jonathan Daniels. In March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for moral leadership from clerics brought Daniels to Selma, Alabama. Unlike most, he stayed, realizing, “I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question…. I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here.”
On August 14, 1965, Daniels was one of a group of 29 protesters, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to picket its whites-only stores. All of the protesters were arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. The police released five juvenile protesters the next day. The rest of the group was held for six days; they refused to accept bail unless everyone was bailed.
Finally, on August 20, the prisoners were released without transport back to Fort Deposit. After release, the group waited near the courthouse jail while one of their members called for transport. Daniels with three others—a white Catholic priest and two black female activists—walked to buy a cold soft drink at nearby Varner’s Cash Store, one of the few local places to serve non-whites.
But barring the front was Tom L. Coleman, an unpaid special deputy who was holding a shotgun and had a pistol in a holster. Coleman threatened the group and leveled his gun at seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down and caught the full blast of the shotgun. He was instantly killed. Father Richard F. Morrisroe grabbed activist Joyce Bailey and ran with her. Coleman shot Morrisroe, severely wounding him in the lower back, and then stopped firing.[
Jesus said; “There is no greater love than this that one would lay down their life for a friend.” Can any of us do the same?
So where do you stand as Pilate cried out “Ecce Homo” which is Latin for “Behold the Man”?
Are we like Pilate, who didn’t have the nerve to do the right thing because he was afraid of the crowd?
Are we like Barabbas, whose hate for the Romans blinded him to the power of love and forgiveness?
Are we the like the crowd, who screams of “crucify him” become an echo chamber of mistruth, anger, and hatred?
Or are we like Jesus, who in the midst of fear, hatred, and injustice continued to love and forgive.
Where are you today? Only you can answer that question as you too look toward Calvary.