Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jesus, Barabbas, and Pilate (Mark 15:1-15)

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 them over to be crucified.”

Today we are continuing in our series of messages that remains our focus throughout Lent. We are studying 24 Hours that Changed the World, looking together at the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. My hope is that you will experience and understand the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in a way you never have before as we share this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.

Two weeks ago, we spent time with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night. We struggled with him, joining in with him as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done,” just before he was arrested in the middle of the night. Last week, we went with him to the home of the high priest for a rushed trial in the middle of the night before the whole Jewish council, and we remembered that it was the religious people who worked against Jesus, not the sinners. The caution in our day, particularly for those of us who consider ourselves religious, is to check anything within ourselves that might be working against Jesus.

Today, our attention shifts to the next episode. After Jesus’ religious trial in the middle of the night, he was taken at daybreak to the Fortress Antonia, the home of the Roman governor and the Roman soldiers who occupied the city, for yet another trial before the governor, and that’s where we meet up with Jesus today. May we pray.

Leslie Wilson, our office manager, has struggled with typing the name “Pilate” all week. She’s a fitness nut, and she keeps wanting to put an “s” on the end of the word, making it “Pilates.” Just to be clear, today we are NOT talking about some fitness routine Jesus was on. Jesus wasn’t going to the gym four days a week for a class in Pontius Pilates!

Friday Morning, 7:00 am

In last week’s message, Jesus was brought under cover of darkness into a secret trial in front of the religious authorities of his day. They had found him guilty of blasphemy, a crime deserving the death penalty. However, the council itself did not have the authority to administer capital punishment. That authority rested with the Roman government. So, if the religious authorities were going to get Jesus killed, they were going to need some cooperation from the governor.

They knew the charge of blasphemy, his claim to be the Messiah, wouldn’t interest the Roman governor, but the implications of that claim might. Because, if Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, that meant he was also claiming to be king, the Anointed One who would rule over the people. In those days, an oath that Roman citizens often took was to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In a manner of speaking, this was their pledge of allegiance to Caesar and his government. The Roman empire had room for only one king, and that king was Caesar.

The religious authorities were forcing the situation into one of two outcomes, and both worked out in their favor. If he wanted to escape death, Jesus would have to deny his claim to be the Messiah, and if he refused to renounce his claim, Pilate would have no choice but to put him to death for insurrection.

And so, the Jewish religious authorities brought Jesus to Pilate, the governor, with the accusation that Jesus had claimed to be some sort of God-appointed king over the people. But, Pilate knew what they were up to. He knew the chief priests and the elders and the scribes and the rest of the council had trumped up these charges against Jesus out of envy – Jesus was becoming more popular than they were, and their fear and insecurity drove their hatred.

Pilate drove right to the heart of the issue, and he asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus simply said, “You say so.” This is a rather cryptic response. Maybe it was meant to mean, “Yes, of course I am.” He might have meant, “You have spoken and I’m not going to disagree with you.” But, he didn’t elaborate. Jesus didn’t say another word.

When I read about Jesus’ silence at his trials, I see that resolutely, determined, even, Jesus is prepared to die. He was not about to defend himself. He wasn’t trying to get out of the death penalty. He had a choice – of denying his own identity by caving to the pressures of the religious leaders and the government and thus preserving his own life, or of standing resolutely to his claimed identity, remaining true to his mission, and thus being put to death.

Jesus knew that to deny his identity and preserve his own life would jeopardize his entire mission. It would have been the easy thing, the cushy thing, the comfortable thing, but it would have been the wrong thing. Jesus understands that doing the right thing will often have unpleasant consequences. However, he is not dissuaded even if the consequences of his actions mean his own death. He understands the consequences and he is prepared to deal with them.

Jesus knew what was coming. Unpleasant consequences to the claim he made lay ahead of him, yet he stood by his claim with full knowledge and acceptance of those consequences. He had prayed in the garden “Not my will, but yours be done,” a prayer that seemed to give him the strength to stand firm in what he knew to be right, even in the face of the evil that was about to be done to him.


It was the custom of the governor to release a prisoner during the Passover festival, and this is where we are introduced to Barabbas. We are told that Barabbas was a murderer – who here thinks Barabbas was a pretty bad dude? That is precisely the way we have been conditioned to think of Barabbas, we’ve been conditioned to not like him very much, to despise him, to think of him as some sort of monster, but I’d like to suggest another way to consider him.

To look at him another way, you need to put yourselves in the sandals of a Jewish person in the first century. Remember, Judea was occupied by the Roman government in those days. If Charlotte were invaded and occupied by – someone preposterous – Canada, let’s say, would you be happy or upset about that? I use Canada because they are the most polite people on the planet. OK, what if the Canadian government built a fort right in the middle of the city to house the army they had to leave here to keep order, would that make you happier or not so much? Now, how would you feel if your taxes increased by 600% and was paid to the Canadian government, who, in turn used the money to fund the army that occupied Charlotte? How do you think you’d feel about that – pretty happy, or pretty upset?

Well, the situation in Jerusalem wasn’t much different. Most people hated having the Roman army there, having to pay taxes to Rome that funded the very army that kept them under control.

But then, back to our Canada example, what if someone in Charlotte rose up and planned an uprising against the Canadian army, an overthrow of the local branch of the Canadian government, all in an attempt to drive the Canadian presence out of Charlotte for good? If you’re sick and tired of being under Canadian control, are you going to celebrate that person or resent them? And, if they’re unsuccessful in overthrowing the Canadian regime and end up in prison because of their role in the rebellion, would you view them as a criminal, or as the unfortunate political prisoner of the oppressive Canadian regime?

If you can understand that, then you can understand how the people viewed Barabbas. He had been involved in an uprising against the Roman authorities. Things didn’t go so well, and he was placed in prison for his role in the rebellion. But in the eyes of the people, he wasn’t a criminal. He was a political prisoner, a freedom fighter, a national hero. We tend to read the description of Barabbas as a “murderer,” and write him off as a bad dude, and wonder what in the world was the matter with the crowd that they would ask for him to be released instead of Jesus. But, if we focus on the other part of how he’s described, as “one involved in the rebellion,” and realize that would make him a national hero of the people, well, that changes everything.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Barabbas’ name was actually “Jesus Barabbas” (Matthew 27:16). The name “Jesus” means “Savior;” we are meant to know that both men were messianic figures. If you break down the name “Barabbas” into its two parts – “bar” and “abba,” you get even more meaning. “Bar” means “son” and “abba” means “father.” So his name, Barabbas, Bar-abbas, literally means “son of the father.” It was the custom to release one prisoner during the Passover, and the governor, Pilate, had two prisoners in front of him. One was Jesus – savior, king of the Jews, and the other was Barabbas – savior, son of the father. Both were charged with leading insurrections and wanting to be king of the Jews. Who would it be? Barabbas, who had murdered people during the rebellion, or Jesus, who had done nothing wrong – the Jesus who loved lost people, who taught them about the kingdom of God, and blessed many?

Clearly, given those options, Pilate thought the people would choose Jesus, and he was all too happy to oblige. Perhaps Pilate should have done his homework. Because the people were being given a choice between two messianic figures with very different messages. If you picture yourself as part of the crowd, who would you pick? One is going to lead by force, throw out the Romans, reclaim your wealth and prosperity, lower your taxes, and restore the strength of the nation. The other’s leadership involves loving those same oppressors, serving them as they dwell among you, doubling the service they demand of you. Given that choice, who would you choose?

Even more, the religious leaders stirred up the crowd against Jesus, and they clamored for Barabbas to be released, and that’s exactly what happened. In Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, as Barabbas was released, he looked back upon Jesus; and a momentary look of understanding crossed his face. For an instant, Barabbas seemed to understand that an innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. We are meant to look at the cross and see both God’s great love and the costliness of grace and to find our hearts changed by what God has done for us. Like Barabbas, we walk away free because of the suffering of an innocent man.


We think of modern politicians as the ones who are obsessed with taking public opinion polls, but Pilate was clearly no stranger to the process. He asked the people what they wanted, they said they wanted Barabbas released instead of Jesus, and Pilate made his decision based on the whim of the people, even though he knew it wasn’t right.

And, not content to stop there, Pilate took another public opinion poll. He asked, “What, then, do you want me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” The chilling response came back: “Crucify him.” Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas, and after flogging Jesus, handed him over to be crucified.

What do we make of Pontius Pilate? I think his legendary fitness system gives us a clue. That’s right, we’re back to Pontius Pilates! The Pilates fitness system was created in the 1920s by legendary German fitness instructor Joseph Pilates, and there have been variations on his system.

However, Biblical archaeologists have recently uncovered new evidence that reveals the ancient antecedent to the contemporary Pilates system, and it was started by, you guess it, Pontius Pilate! Who said "No pain, No gain"? Not the 5th procurator of Judea that's for sure! This great leader was all about avoiding personal pain while strengthening his personal position. From this great man comes The Pontius Pilates Method™, and it's darn good!

The Pontius Pilates Method™ is based on three simple rules. Follow these rules, and you too can master the Pontius Pilates method! What are they? Well, I’m glad you asked!

1. Always do what’s easiest, not what’s right. Feel the burn as they demand what you know to be wrong, push against this pressure and then collapse and allow your weakness to wash over you. Feels good doesn't it? Now wash your hands of the whole thing.

2. True peace is born of ignorance. Sit in your chair and think of some difficult or controversial topic. Now, close your eyes and pretend you can’t see it. The sweeping power of the Pontius Pilates Method wipes the problem away as relief and peace come washing back in. Now, wash hands again.

3. A position of strength empowers the weak person. Still sitting in your exercise chair, simultaneously place your feet on the chest and throat of your adversary. This will cause them to cave to your wishes. You will be enlightened to the truth that even a feeble-minded person can exert influence over another if they are allowed to take a position of strength. Self-satisfied in your position of strength, go wash your hands again.

Pilate was hesitant to have Jesus killed. All four Gospel writers emphasize his discomfort with the idea and the many ways he tried to get out of it. If all four Gospel writers found it important to discuss how reluctant the Roman governor was to have Jesus killed, then we know very clearly that Jesus was not leading a rebellion against Rome.

Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. He knew it was wrong to put Jesus to death. He had the power to stop it. But the pull of the crowd was compelling, just as the voice of the leaders had proven compelling to members of the Jewish ruling council who might have questioned their part in Jesus’ death. Pilate sent Jesus to the cross to satisfy the desires of the crowd, washed his hands of the whole thing, and said, “The crowd made me do it. I’m not responsible.”

We are meant to see ourselves in the faces that conspired against Jesus. Maybe we find ourselves like Pilate, going along with the crowd, satisfying their desires even though we know it isn’t right, washing our hands and refusing to accept our own responsibility for our own actions. Maybe we find ourselves like Barabbas, a sinner whose place Jesus took, a sinner for whom Jesus died.

Or maybe, we find ourselves in the crowd, who turned on Jesus when they realized he wasn’t the messiah they were hoping for. When Jesus came into Jerusalem, many were anticipating a messiah who would lead an armed rebellion against the Romans; and Jesus sorely disappointed them. Jesus was the only messiah who refused to take up the sword. He had no interest in inciting the crowds to throw off the shackles of Roman oppression. Instead, he taught people to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. He called blessed those who suffer for what is true and right, those who are meek, those who are peacemakers.

This was not what the people were looking for. Here was a would-be messiah who went against everything many of them believed in. For them, the only way to survive was by force. Freedom required the sword. But Jesus said, in effect, “Listen; I tell you: it is not by the power of the sword but by the power of the cross that you will be set free. It’s not going to be by raising up an army against the Romans. Rather, it will be by demonstrating sacrificial love.”

And Jesus was right. He knew that if every Jewish man, woman, and child were armed to the teeth and pitted against the Romans, they would be crushed. Jesus realized that victory over the Romans would not come by way of the sword. He said it would come by the power of agape love – a giving, emptying, sacrificial love that ultimately cannot be defeated. “You will conquer them,” he was saying, “with the power of an idea. When they hear about your God and see that God lived out in your lives, then their hearts will be changed.”

This, of course, is what happened. Christianity spread because it was so compelling. The story of a God who came as a man to call people to love and who suffered for them was a far more powerful story than any to be found in any other religious tradition. The Roman empire was ultimately conquered not by the sword, but by the cross of Christ.

This was the way of Jesus. Yet on that fateful day, the crowd considered the message and way of Jesus, and said, “No thanks. We’ve seen your way, Jesus, and we’d prefer to do it our way instead. Away with Jesus, we have no use for him anymore. Crucify him! Crucify him!” We are meant to see ourselves in this story.

1 comment:

  1. Even today, is you teach the real Jesus, the radical Jesus, the 'Church' will crucify you; many examples down thru history.