Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 25, 2018
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
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!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Mark 15: 6-15
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.
I read this week about a Civil War legend, one that I was not able to substantiate historically, so perhaps the story is just that – a legend. Perhaps the next time we see our former moderator Bob Smith, we can ask him about it since he is now lives in Gettysburg, PA, the setting for the story. Immediately preceding the battle of Gettysburg, a resident of the town named Hannah was deeply disturbed by the rumors of what might happen. Hannah was a staunch supporter of President Lincoln and the Union army. She was most opposed to slavery. She held a deep hatred in her heart for the leader of the Confederate forces, General Robert E. Lee. And Hannah was most protective of her hometown of Gettysburg and she did not want to see it trampled or damaged by cavalry and cannonball. One afternoon before the battle began, Hannah heard that General Lee was approaching Gettysburg via the Chambersburg Road. Since she lived alone and had no weapons, she took the poker from her fireplace, mounted her horse and started down the road to meet General Lee. Or course nothing happened. Lee’s army rode on to Gettysburg. Hannah never actually confronted the general. The bloody battle actually happened. But once the war was over, many of the town’s women remembered what Hannah did and had quite a bit of fun with her. At a quilting party another woman said, “Hannah, what in the world did you expect to do with an old fireplace poker against the great Southern army general?” Hannah replied, “I really didn’t expect to do anything. But I did let them know what side I was on.”
This is Palm Sunday, the day in which we recognize and celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem. We wave our palms and we shout “Hosanna” as we recognize that the one who rode into the city humbly upon a donkey was the Son of God bringing with him the Kingdom of God. Yet today also begins what is known as Passion Week. Many traditions read the entire narrative of Jesus’ arrest and trial as part of the Scripture lesson this day. I would like for us to focus on a small piece of that story and upon the importance of one of the characters in Jesus’ passion. That man was named Barabbas.
In Mark’s gospel, Barabbas in mentioned following Jesus’ examination before the chief priests and scribes, as he stood before Pilate for his civil trial. Mark’s version of the event fits most of the other gospel writers’ interpretation. Pilate seemed to understand that Jesus was innocent and that Jesus was brought before him by religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their power or at the very least a menace to the established order. Pilate was looking for a compromise or at least to escape responsibility for what seemed to be foregone conclusion – the conviction of Jesus. And so remembering that there was a Passover custom that allowed the governor to release any prisoner to the people, he offered to sentence and then release Jesus. But it was Barabbas that the crowd wanted set free. It was his name that they chanted right before they pointed at Jesus and said, “Crucify him!” Pilate resigned himself to the cries of the crowd. Barabbas was set free and Jesus was nailed to the cross.
Who was this man who enters the story of Jesus so briefly yet importantly as Jesus stood before Pilate? We don’t know much about him because he is only mentioned in this scene and nowhere else in the Bible. Perhaps the experienced among us recall Barabbas from the 1960’s movie starring Anthony Quinn. There are some important questions about his name. The name Barabbas itself means “son of the father” or perhaps “son of the teacher.” If the former is accurate, Barabbas should have had a first name. Some manuscripts even say that his first name of Jesus, thus he was known as Jesus bar Abbas. A handful of scholars believe that his first name of Jesus was left out of the gospel accounts because early Christians did not want the name Jesus associated with a criminal. If the latter interpretation is true and his name meant the son of a teacher, his father probably held an important position in the Jewish religious community as a rabbi. Certainly then, Barabbas was a well-known young man in Jerusalem.
Apparently Barabbas was in prison for taking part in a revolt against the Roman authority. In other words – he was a Jewish insurrectionist who was charged with treason and murder. The average Jew in Judea hated the Romans for their occupation, hated the rulers that the emperor appointed to govern the people, hated the tax enforced to pay for the rule, and hated the armies that walked the streets to enforce the rule. Many dreamed of a messiah – a leader sent by God who would arise to command them into battle and drive the Romans from their land and restore the kingdom of Israel and the Temple to its former glory. Apparently, Barabbas was one of those and he had tired of waiting for God to act. He took action on his own and now sat in prison for attempting such a political and military uprising.
And so on that day Pilate offered to the crowd a question or choice. Would you like me to release Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas the Zealot? It is interesting to note that there is no historical record of the existence of such a custom as prisoner release. The gospel of Luke, written by a person deeply concerned with presenting accurate history, does not mention it. But Matthew and Mark and John write about Pilate conveniently using the custom to avoid responsibility. Did the gospel writers make the custom up? And if they did, what was their point? Some scholars believe that the blame for Jesus’ death had to be taken away from the Romans and placed squarely on the shoulders of the Jews. The early Christians who lived under Roman rule did not want to be part of a religion that followed a man executed as a political revolutionary by the Romans. That would be dangerous and give the Romans an excuse to crack down on them. The legend of Barabbas gave them a reason to make the Jews responsible.
But there is another explanation for this story in the midst of Passion week, one that I certainly prefer. There is a theological motive for the choice that Pilate gave to the crowd: Jesus or Barabbas. Barabbas was the perfect image of the way of the logic and power and authority. He was full of political and military bravado in a world that always seems to be inspired by such talk. Jesus’ teachings were distinguished by love and sacrifice and mercy. Barabbas was a man of action, of violent action, who appealed to nationalism and hatred. Jesus taught peacemaking, concern for the rights of others, and the love of one’s enemies. Barabbas seemed to be comfortable with the ways of the society. Jesus pointed others to the ways of God, of turning the other cheek and standing for the poor and oppressed. Barabbas was the choice of the religious leaders who allowed the political circumstance of the day to define their actions of faith. Jesus said that God alone should be worshipped and the building of the Kingdom of God is more important that earthly allegiance. Barabbas’ solutions to the problems of the time made sense to people and appealed to their understanding of human security. Jesus’ solutions were impractical and called for change that threatened one’s comfort. Barabbas probably looked and thought and acted in a way that appealed to the masses. Jesus certainly did not.
Why does this mention of Barabbas occur in the midst of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem? I believe deeply in the genius of the gospel writers and I believe that they were trying to teach early Christians and even 21st century Christians an important lesson about Jesus and about what following Jesus truly means. This week that we are about to enter follows a narrative that asks many questions and presents many choices. Pilate asks Jesus, “Who are you?” and “What is truth?” Judas asks, “What will you give me if I betray him?” When Jesus predicts his betrayal at Upper Room, the disciples are quick to ask him, “Is it I?” The woman near the courtyard fire points at Peter and asks, “Weren’t you one of his followers?” Peter quickly denied it.
There are lots of questions asked in the narrative we remember this week, but perhaps none more important that the one Pilate asks of the crowd and the same question that each of us must consider with the words and actions of our lives, “Do you prefer Barabbas or Jesus?” Do you choose the ways of the world or the ways of God? Are you comfortable with the standards of violence and greed or will you choose a calling that turns the other cheek, and lifts up the needs of the weak and poor? Do you prefer the comfortable status quo of Barabbas or can you follow the difficult challenge of Jesus the Christ? Are you drawn to words that promise power and strength and control or do you wish to heed the call for love, forgiveness, and exchanges of mercy?
American theologian and member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy Margaret Farley writes, “We do not resist the forces of suspicion, fear, and violence by adopting the patterns of evil they represent. Through the death of Jesus, all death is overwhelmed; through the humiliations of Jesus, all humiliation can be transformed. This is not because of the death or the humiliation but because of the love that was not broken. When Jesus entered Jerusalem lamenting its failure to understand the things that were for its peace, he did not…give up the struggle against the works of war. There is a time to stand before all the world in a word of truth- bearing witness to a life, a love, a dignity so great that neither death nor anything else will destroy it, or even render it silent.”
As people of faith, there are questions we must answer. While they are asked every hour of every day, this week the questions seem clearer. It is as if the writers of the gospels are holding out a mirror for us to look into. Do we see an image that we do not recognize and would rather not see? Do we choose Barabbas or Jesus? Do we choose hate or love? Do we prefer retribution or forgiveness? Self-centeredness or sacrifice? Righteous anger or mercy? Do we embrace greed or compassion? Status or humility? Self-deception or honesty? While it may not be wise or certainly not Christ-like to grab a fireplace poker and head out to battle General Lee, we might want to consider the wisdom of Gettysburg Hannah’s words. In a day and age where it is easy and popular to live in a worldly fashion, it is time to show the world and everyone around us just whose side we are on. Do we choose Barabbas or Jesus?