The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer. I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
Mark 15:1-15 At daybreak, the chief priests—with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin—formed a plan. They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “ Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” The chief priests were accusing him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations? ” But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.
During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”
They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?”
They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”
Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.
I’ve heard all my life that Jesus was sent to die for our sins. It is such an important part of the American Christian ethos that it is usually said uncritically. “Jesus died on the cross for me.” For some, this just rolls off the tongue without much thought, and when people do think about it, they think only of their own sin. It becomes a very privatized way of thinking of Jesus. And while I am not opposed to thinking that Jesus died on the cross for me, I can’t think it uncritically. Something about this passage doesn’t sit right.
If I am to believe that Jesus came to die on the cross for me, than why I am so upset when I read about this exchange? If Jesus’ mission was to die on the cross, then isn’t it a good thing that the people chose to save Barabbas? Then why does reading this fill me with regret? Why do I get frustrated with the suddenly neutered Pilate who just wants to appease the crowd? There are a lot of ways to understand what happened when Jesus died on the cross. One of them is to believe that Jesus came to die on the cross for me. But this just doesn’t sit well as the only explanation. If it was, then this scene wouldn’t be heart-wrenching.
Here’s another way to understand what happened here. Jesus came to announce “God’s good news; saying; ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!'” (Mark 1:15) He announced it to fishermen, interrupting their lives even in the midst of a catch. He was so compelling that the set aside full nets to follow. He proclaimed it to the demon-possessed, to the lepers, the sinners and the tax-collectors. He gathered followers along the Judean countryside by forgiving sins, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. He reached out to women and children. He healed on the Sabbath. He calmed the storms, fed the multitudes, and redefined what it meant to be holy. He looked beyond the letter of the law and revealed to the people the heart of God. For all of this, and for upsetting the powers that be, he was condemned.
He was given a mockery of a trial, and taken to the Roman authority to be dealt with. He was condemned to death, not because God needed him to die, but because we could not allow him to live. In our brokenness, humanity clung to old ways of knowing about power. They clung to a system that subjugated a people. They clung to an institution that robbed the widows’ of their houses. They clung to the power of the sword and the Pax Romana, as enforced by the Legionnaire’s spear. How tightly do we still cling?
When given a choice between Jesus or Barabbas they chose. They chose the man that had committed murder during an insurrection. They chose the sword. They chose the power of the world. They chose the one that would try to overthrow Caesar by the only method that they understood. And in that choice lays the ultimate tragedy of our existence. When humanity had the choice between the Kingdom of God and the power of the world, they chose the world. When given the chance to save the man that taught them to “love their enemy,” they chose the man that murdered his enemy.
They made the choice then, and it is the choice we continue to make. Every time we choose to hold onto bitterness and anger. Every time we refuse to reconcile. Every time we turn a blind eye to injustice and suffering. Every time we condemn another to make ourselves feel safe. Every time we choose the way of the world, we choose Barabbas. And we may as well be shouting “Crucify him!”
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Hear our cries for redemption. As you go closer to the cross, we see our own complicity. I want to be blind no longer. Open my eyes that I may see not only the cross, but the path that led you to that cross. Open my eyes not only to the cross, but to the hope that lies beyond it. Keep that hope alive in me on this journey. Amen.