The New Testament writers say little about this man whose story is so intertwined with the events of Holy Week. John speaks of him as a bandit, using words which later Jewish historian Josephus used to describe patriots, revolutionaries opposed to the Roman government of Judea. Matthew refers to Barabbas as prisoner of some notoriety”. In the gospels of Mark and Luke we are given the added detail that he was in prison for his involvement in a riot.
Who was Barrabbas anyway….? Was he a bandit, a rabble rouser, a patriot or revolutionary seeking justice and freedom for his people? We may never have those answers but one thing seems certain, there are no easy stereotypes when it comes to Barabbas. His full name was Jesus Barabbas which literally means Son of the Father, a name by which the other Jesus identified himself with among his followers.
He is a stranger to us, but to some in the crowd he was intimately familiar. He was, as his name declares, the son of a father, he had a mother, may have had a wife, children, brothers sisters,friends as well as those who admired his cause, whichever it may have been! There were some in that multitude who probably loved him! With certainty there were some glad for the political scheming that called for the freeing of Barabbas, their family member, lover or friend!
In a world increasingly divided by political ideologies, class, race and ethnicity, this episode reminds us that people are more than the labels and stereotypes we would put them in! There are lives and particular stories behind the names and selective images flashed from our phones, computers and TV screens! Christians, Episcopalians in particular, who promise to uphold the dignity of every human being, should be careful and prayerful as we face the difficult issues that threaten to divide and alienate people from each other in our society!
“Release Barabbas”… were also words that would have been uttered by the man whose death was clamored for; the man Jesus of Nazareth. John and Matthew record the words of the Nazarene saying, “…No one takes my life from me. I give my life of my own free will…” “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many…”. Would that not have included a man who was sentenced to death , even as he?
In the release of Jesus Barabbas, Jesus the Nazarene, though innocent, dies in his stead. This idea of substitution, where the innocent freely gives his life to save the guilty, has long been at the heart of how Christians understand what happened in the cross.
Here are some of those reflections from Scripture;
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins…”
"But we see Jesus…that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man" (Hebrews 2:9)
“… Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13)
“… God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Our liturgies give testimony of that firmly held belief. Here are the words of the Eucharistic prayer A, 1979 BCP:
“…He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience to your will a perfect sacrifice for all mankind….”
This idea called “Substitutionary Atonement” is for modern Christians hard to comprehend. There are some in Episcopal circles that decry the concept and its models, yet it seems like a simple truth that speaks to the heart! Someone has taken my place so that I may go free….! I am Barabbas, so are you! We were accused and condemned but God loved us, Jesus took our place and we were set free. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians speaks of the list of decrees against us that was made null by Christ in the cross we are liberated, given a new chance, a new life!
Release Barrabas…I wonder how incredible those words sounded in his ears on that afternoon. He who had come to terms with certain death was let go! Wow…The unthinkable has happened and he was set free!
I wonder what he did with his newfound life and liberty? We have imagined it in all sorts of ways ! There is version where Barabbas becomes a follower of Christ , the one where he returns to the life of a revolutionary or a brigand . For the philosopher Khalil Gibran Barabbas becomes the ever tormented soul. Here are the words he puts in the mouth of the condemned man who was released;
“…THEY RELEASED ME and chose Him. Then He rose and I fell down... I was freed from my chains, and walked with the throng behind Him, but I was a living man going to my own grave…I should have fled to the desert where shame is burned out by the sun... I know now that those who slew Him in my stead achieved my endless torment. His crucifixion endured but for an hour. But I shall be crucified unto the end of my years…”There is a choice to be made as to how we live the rest of our lives! What will we do? Have you ever felt accused, condemned by people, by your heart, your conscience? Jesus calls for your release and gives you the choice of a new life and a second chance! May we have the grace to choose well and …May the odds ever be in our favor….!