Jesus, Pilate, Barabbas, and centuries of violence

As we approach Easter, my church continues to work through Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours that Changed the World.  This Sunday, we will be looking at Jesus before Pilate.  As found in the gospel of Mark, the story goes like this:

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

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.

Gospel of Mark 15:1-15 New Revised Standard Version

Here we have an incredibly powerful narrative of Jesus, Pilate and Barabbas.  If used properly, this story can be a mirror to our own souls – forcing the reader to ask the question, “What do you wish me to do with the man?”  In this dramatic scene, the people are given a choice.  The Gospel of Mark presents this choice in clear and uncertain terms.  Barabbas is describes as a rebel who murdered someone during an insurrection.  He was an enemy of the state – and he used violence to achieve his goal.

Barabbas was resentful of Roman rule and wanted, like so many Judeans at the time, to be free of Roman rule.  For centuries Judea had been under the thumb of one world superpower or another.  Rome was just another in a long line of foreign rulers.  The people longed to be free of oppression.  Barabbas had followed one path toward freedom.  We don’t know if he lead a great uprising, or if he was just a part of a troublesome skirmish, but the details of his crime are not important.  He is presented as a symbol.  He is the path of liberation through violence.

More than this though, he is the way of the world.  His path is the same path as the Romans.  Though he had the goal of overthrowing Roman rule, his means were the same that Rome used.  His path of violence was, in many ways, the only one that people knew.  It was the way of the world – it was the way of “might makes right.”  He wanted to make a new Kingdom, based on God’s law and God’s people, but he used the tactics upon which the Kingdom of Rome was built.  They were the same tactics on which the Kingdom of Perisa was built, and the Kingdom of the Babylonians, and the Kingdom of the Pharoah.

Jesus presents a different option. He was trying to build the Kingdom of God, which can only be built with peace, grace, humility and self-sacrifice.  Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies, to sell their possessions, to leave their families and their status and their well-being and their comfort.   Barabbas said, “Pick up your weapon and follow me.”  Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”

As we read the Gospel account of the people choosing to set Barabbas free, we must remember that the choice is ours.  Everyday we stand in that crowd.  Everyday we hear the chief priests – the pompous, the powerful, the comfortable, the talking-heads, the radio hosts, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors – egging us on to set Barabbas free.  Everyday we must choose between the way of the world and the way of God.

We work either to build kingdoms of men, or the Kingdom of God.  Every time we choose to work for the good of others, every time we seek out a closer relationship with the outcast, every time we sacrifice our comfort or status for the sake of love, we reverse the decision that was made that day.  When we pay a little more for fair trade coffee, when we make an effort to recycle our trash, when we pick up our Bible and spend some time with God, when we ask a friend if it’s okay to pray for them, when we go to worship instead of sleeping in, when we witness to our faith through word and deed, we reverse the decision that was made that day.

Don’t let evil ones tell you that the decision was made by the Jewish crowds.  Don’t let them get away with pawning off this decision on them, because we are there making the same decision everyday.  Don’t let Pilate off because he tried to “wash his hands of this.”  It’s not that easy.  Jesus’ blood isn’t washed away with water and a towel.

This text has been misused to justify violence against millions for centuries.  It has been misused by people who want to avoid the question, “What do you want me to do with this man?”  Don’t let Mel Gibson’s movie tell you that it was the Jews that killed Jesus.  Don’t believe the lies.  Too often, depictions of the gospels in drama – called passion plays – get lazy.  They allow and sometimes encourage the viewer to side with Pilate, the reluctant Roman, and denounce the actions of the Jewish mob.

Don’t forget that the road from Oberammergau to Dachau is only a short drive in a car, and throughout history has been shorter than that in the hearts of those looking for someone to blame.  Read about the history of Oberammergau.  Read about Hitler’s visit in 1934.  Read about the changes they have made since 2000, and wonder why it took so long.  I live close to the longest running passion play in America, and yet its website is conspiculously free of anything about the link between violence against Jews and passion plays.

There are those that have deeply emotional responses to passion plays.  Part of my faith development includes a powerful experience with a passion play.  They are designed to emit emotional response.  There is a basic human response to the suffering of an innocent that should invoke emotional response.  All I am saying is, be careful.

If you see a passion play this year, do so with your eyes wide open.  Be honest with your own feelings.  Those emotions you feel – are they about the sin you see in yourself?  Do you have a contrite and broken heart because you see yourself in the crowd?  Do you see yourself in Pilate, trying to wash your hands of a something that you had the power to stop?  Or are you angry with those that killed Jesus?  Are you quick to blame others for sin in which we all participate?

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