This Holy Week we reflect on the final days of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his resurrection from the dead. We began with the triumphal entry of our Lord, a humble servant King, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” We recall his zeal for God’s house as he overturned the tables of money-changers in the temple, chastising them for turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves. We remember how he spent his time teaching and healing, challenging the religious authorities and being challenged by them, how he shared his last Passover meal intimately with his disciples, washed their feet as an example of the way they were to love one another, and transformed that final meal into a holy commemoration of his self-sacrificial love. We travel with him and the disciples to the Mount of Olives and down through the Kidron valley and into a garden where he was arrested by guards who were led to him by one of his closest disciples, Judas. We stand outside of Caiaphas’ house with Peter as he denies his Lord at the same time that he is being condemned by the chief priests. Soon, and only after Jesus’ has endured much mockery and abuse, we find ourselves in another crowd that is presented with an incredible decision between two men, both named Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas. Which Jesus would they choose?
In some older translations the fact that Barabbas, which means the son of Abbas in Hebrew and Aramaic, wasn’t this man’s full name is lost. Apparently some early Christian scribes didn’t care for the name Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, “Joshua”, which means the Lord saves, being shared by the convicted, murderous revolutionary who was known as Barabbas. Nevertheless, many textual critics including the translators of the NRSV and NIV feel confident that Barabbas’ full name included, “Jesus” as well.
So, as Jesus of Nazareth stood there beside Jesus Barabbas, Pilate gave the crowd a stark choice. One would be condemned to die a shameful death on a Roman cross; the other would be set free. One would be rejected, the other accepted. As we know the crowd chose to set Jesus Barabbas free They chose a man of war over the prince of peace, a violent revolutionary who would take matters into his own hands over the one who would commend his very life into the hands of God but not before placing the very enemies who had condemned him in the awesome but merciful hands of his Father in heaven.
Barabbas was a warrior who would call down curses on the heads of his hated enemies. Jesus was a humble servant who would call upon his followers to bless those who cursed them and pray for those who persecuted them and to love all, even those who hated and reviled them. The crowd chose a man of action over a man of prayer, a man of the people over the man of God. The choice was stark indeed, and the consequences fatal, but more so for Temple and the city of Jerusalem that surrounded it and those in the mold of Barabbas, who would die violently just a few short decades to come, than for Jesus of Nazareth. Of course it was fatal for Jesus as well, fatal, but not final because God raised him from the dead, vindicating him and all those who would thereafter put their faith in him, as the true Savior and Lord. The crowd, led by the Jewish religious leaders thought they had pronounced the condemnation on the Nazarene, but in actuality they had pronounced their own, a judgment that would be carried out by the war machine that was the Roman Empire in 70 A.D and completed several decades later.
They made the wrong decision! They chose the wrong Jesus! What if we have as well?
In this I’m reminded that the apostle Paul warns about those who preach “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:4). This is a Jesus who is different from the one proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles, the earliest followers of Jesus. It’s a Jesus preached by “super-apostles” as Paul quite sarcastically refers to them. In keeping with the Corinthians’ penchant for worldly wisdom and disdain for “God’s foolishness” (1 Cor 1:18-31), this other Jesus would most certainly be one who would be quite a bit more acceptable and respectable in the eyes of the Greco-Roman world.
Barabbas, in film at least, is quite often depicted as a rather unkempt ruffian, who was more like a rabid mad dog of sorts than someone who might be appointed as secretary of defense. What if it was really more like the later?
It’s quite interesting to me that Barabbas is presented to the crowd by a key representative of what Paul calls, “principalities and powers” in Ephesians 6:12, and the crowd inspired by the religious authorities for reasons of political expediency selected him, a more acceptable and respectable Jesus for “the real world,” I suppose.
This temptation, the temptation to choose a more worldly and acceptable Jesus, never goes away. Still today Jesus of Nazareth quite often is sold out for one who is appealing to the flesh and the wisdom of this world. So we’re presented with one who looks more like a Marxist radical (Che-sus anyone?) or one who would definitely vote for the next Ronald Reagan of course, or maybe even one whose apostles are more in tune with the Pauls of Texas and Kentucky than Paul of Tarsus. Are we more concerned that people follow us as we follow Christ or that they just follow us to the polls and vote like we would? If so we may have sold out Jesus of Nazareth for 30 pieces of silver a long time ago and voted to betray innocent blood with shouts of “crucify him! Crucify him!”
Conformity to this world (Rom 12:2) is strengthened by a Jesus in its own image and after its own heart. Then when we are presented with a choice, a choice between a Jesus who is patterned after the wisdom and ways of this world verses the Jesus who came from and returned to the very heart of God, who will we choose? Who have we chosen? The Jesus who is savior but not Lord? The Jesus who saves us in our sins? The Jesus who wants to watch us change the world, but can’t change the human heart? The Jesus who came so that I could get everything I want even if it kills me and sends me to hell, or the one who died so that I can follow in his footsteps and give everything that I have for him?
I know that I made the wrong choice. How about you? I’ve been in that crowd and I was conformed to it. The good news is that even after that crowd rejected him, even after his closest followers betrayed, abandoned, and denied him, while he hung on the cross to which they had him nailed, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV). God the Father, answered His Son’s prayer in the affirmative, “Yes, for thy sake I will.” He made the choice to forgive. May we choose to repent and receive God’s forgiveness by accepting his one and only Son for Who He really is.