Someone once described the gospels as the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a long introduction. An exaggeration, perhaps, but it points to the extraordinary number of words the gospel writers spend on the last few days of Jesus’ life.
As Lent approaches, I’ve spent some time carefully rereading the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. For many of us, the crucifixion comes down to the neat formula “Jesus died for our sins.” But the fact that the gospels spend so much time on the story ought to make us pay more attention to the details.
One key incident struck me as particularly important. The first three gospels all tell us that the crowds, spurred on by their religious leaders (one commentator calls them “pastors”) demand that Pilate release Barabbas and crucify Jesus in his place.
Matthew tells us that this man’s full name was Jesus Barabbas, which means “Jesus, son of the father.” He was a violent rebel who fomented an insurrection against the Roman occupation—and who Matthew says was quite a popular figure. And why not? The Jews hated the occupation too.
So the choice is Jesus, son of the father, or Jesus, Son of the Father. How could they choose the first one?
Think about it. Jesus Barabbas was a man of action. He didn’t just take it; he fought back. Sword strapped to his side, he had the guts to lead an attack on a Roman installation. Lots of people must have cheered when they heard about it. Here’s a man who acted on his convictions, who didn’t just roll over.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, must have seemed to some to be a wimp and a coward. “If the Roman soldier asks you to carry his load one mile, carry it two.” He warned against insurrection, telling his fellows Jews that it would only lead to their being crushed, which is exactly what happened. Jesus was “handed over” to the authorities—not exactly heroic stuff.
He stood in front of them, bloody with beatings, the butt of mockery, in silent surrender. He didn’t even defend himself or raise a fist, much less denounce the so-called trial for the sham it was.
One the one hand, Jesus Barabbas, the symbol of manliness, the fighter, the embodiment of Jewish nationalism. On the other, Jesus Christ, gentle to a fault, preacher of nonviolence and turning the other cheek, believing in the power of love over the power of the sword. I think the gospel writers are trying to tell us something important here besides the fact that Jesus died for our sins.
Of course, history confirms that, at least in the era of Rome, love and nonviolence did win in the end. The followers of the Crucified One eventually triumphed, while the followers of Barabbas lay dead.
That stark choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ remains to this day. And all too often God’s people choose action over passion, the power of the sword over the power of love. It’s hard not to be attracted to people of action who are tough and unyielding. Leaders who will fight fire with fire, who stand tall against the threat.
Yes, Jesus died for our sins on the cross, but he also called us to take up our cross and follow him—choosing love over hate, restraint over hasty action, trusting in God rather than in our guns. I offer no easy answers to the questions this raises, but choosing Barabbas certainly stands as a solemn warning for us all.