We have a long gospel reading for today – Matthew Chapter 26 verse 66 to the end of Matthew Chapter 27: a total of 127 verses.
It begins when Judas agrees to betray Jesus (26:14-16)
- The Last Supper (26:17 – 30)
- Jesus Predicts Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:31 – 35)
- Gethsemane (26:36 – 46)
- Jesus arrested (26:47 – 56)
- Jesus before the Sanhedrin (26:57 – 68)
- Peter disowns Jesus (Matthew 26:69 – 75)
- Judas Hans himself (Matthew 27:1 – 10)
- Jesus before Pilate (Matthew 27:11 – 26)
- The soldiers mock Jesus (Matthew 27:27 – 31)
- The crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew 27:32 – 44)
- The death of Jesus (Matthew 27:45 – 56)
- The burial of Jesus (Matthew 27:57 – 61)
- The guard at the tomb (Matthew 27:62 -66)
This morning the Sunday before Easter Sunday I will focus on Jesus before Pilate – Matthew 27:11 – 26.
Let us pray…
Let us begin this morning by getting to know someone who was about to be executed.
His name is Jesus Barabbas. He is mentioned in all four Gospels. In Matthew 27:16 Barabbas is called a “notorious prisoner.” In Mark 15:7, echoed in Luke 23:19, he was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” against the occupying Roman forces. He was probably a zealot.
Zealots believed that the kingdom of God would come only when the Gentile pagan invaders were expelled from the city and land and that had to be done even if it meant the shedding of blood — the blood of the Romans and their collaborators and their own blood — in a violent revolution.
But John just refers to him as “a robber” or “a bandit” (John 18:40) — choosing the Greek word lēstēs, connoting one who pillages and loots. In certain contexts, it can also mean “insurrectionist.” The name Barabbas appears nowhere else in the New Testament, nor do any of the Gospels give any information about his previous or subsequent life. According to the early biblical scholar Origen and other commentators, the full name of Barabbas may have been Jesus Barabbas, since Jesus was a common first name.
Remember in the time of Jesus there was an established custom for this Passover feast alone, not for the feast of Tabernacles, nor for Purim, nor the day of Atonement, nor for the Festival of Weeks (which in New Testament days had become known as ‘Pentecost’),
but for this feast alone, and the people were very insistent that this old custom should be maintained. It became one of the talked about events of the Passover period. It was clearly of some long standing, and it was not a Roman tradition set up in each nation they conquered because Pilate says to them, “It is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover” (Jn. 18:39). Its roots were in the life of Israel.
It was nurtured by a national empathy with state prisoners in this occupied land, but there was nothing in the Scriptures that required one prisoner to be released at the Passover, and even when you read the writings of the rabbis and the Talmud there is no mention whatsoever of this tradition, yet, as I said, every one of the gospel writers refer to it.
“Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner called Jesus[r] Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, JesusBarabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (Matthew 27:15 – 17)
WHOM DO YOU WANT ME TO RELEASE?
NOW don’t you think the answer should be obvious?
And yet you and I know who was chosen by the crowd there, over Jesus Christ, to be released by Pontius Pilate in a customary pardon before the feast of Passover.
NOW let’s recap. During the triumphal entry earlier that week, a group praised Jesus. Many pilgrims were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. However, by midweek, some Bible scholars say, the religious leaders enticed their fanboys to create a mob and choose to save Barabbas over Jesus (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11).But perhaps there was even more to the crowd’s choice.
In laying clothes and palm branches on the ground and crying out “Hosanna!” the triumphal entry crowd obviously hailed Jesus as more than a rabbi. Their gestures were political — a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and a recognition (or expectation) that he would forcibly vanquish the Romans. Yet, it was Barabbas who resembled the wartime Messiah they truly desired.
Can I suggest to you at this stage that the story is not so much about Jesus and Barabbas but about us. Jesus the good guy and Barabbas the bad guy. It’s more than that.
Sometimes there is the temptation to paint Barabbas as just a run of the mill criminal – a murderer, rapist, or thief. However, this fails to account for what his real role was and also how he contrasted so much with Jesus Christ. We miss the incredible symbolism of him being released and embraced by the people in exchange for Jesus.
As I have said before Barabbas was a zealot, Jewish revolutionary against the oppressive regime of Rome. Therefore, for many of the people he would not have been seen with disgust but rather as a hero against the oppression. They could probably point to Old Testament passages to give them justification to support the violence that Barabbas represented.
I believe Barabbas stands in direct opposition to the path and message of Jesus, which was explicitly nonviolent as he refused to join in the revolutionary movement against Rome.
NOW how many of you have heard of just war theory? Just war theory is an ethical framework used to determine when it is permissible to go to war and rules for the conduct of war. It originated with Catholic moral theologians like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, though it has had a variety of different forms over time. Are you aware that Jesus’ embrace of and teaching about nonviolence was well known and emphasized in the church during the first 300 years.
Biblical scholar William Klassen writes that these words about loving the enemy were the most frequently quoted of all Jesus’ sayings in the early church. In the first three centuries of our era, all the most respected and influential leaders of the Church taught that nonviolence and love of enemy was expected of followers of Jesus. It fully understood that to be a disciple of Jesus meant to be comprehensively nonviolent. Christians were called upon to love and serve their enemies, to submit to death and martyrdom before ever engaging in or retaliating to someone with violence, and to either never join the military or, if a soldier upon conversion, to refuse to ever engage in violence as a soldier.
The Christian community in Jerusalem refused to participate in the violent insurrection
against the Romans (66-70 C.E.) and for 300 years the church resisted service in the Roman military. Christians refused to worship Caesar, who claimed to be God, or to kill for Caesar.
The Church prepared its members to face the consequences for following the nonviolent Jesus: persecution and martyrdom.
But after the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the fourth century, the church’s awareness of Jesus’ nonviolent teaching and life gradually faded. In the centuries after Constantine, Christianity worked out an accommodation with the coercive power of the state. That accommodation alternated between strong support and criticism. And one of the accommodations was the just war theory.
Believe it or not in June 2022 a controversial US politician stated that Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified if he’d have had a gun. Republican Representative, Lauren Boebert told an audience at the Charis Christian Centre that the Son of God could have fought off Pilate’s men at the Garden of Gethsemane if he’d only had a lightweight semi-automatic rifle of the type used in so many of America’s mass shooting events.
How off the mark is that?
Understanding who Barabbas was and the contrast he had with Jesus should hopefully cause those of faith across the political spectrum to more fully grasp the real radical message of Jesus, which on one hand refused to embrace or give legitimacy the imperialistic regime of Rome, but also refused to join in violence against it. Instead, it took the violence of Rome on itself and in that self-sacrifice began dismantling the power of violence, empire, and oppression.
WHOM DO YOU WANT ME TO RELEASE?
Unfortunately, they choose Barabbas, thinking that the way of force, violence, and oppression will somehow turn into freedom and peace (often promised imperial deceptions).
Yet we all have a choice to make, who will you follow Jesus Barabbas the Violent One or Jesus the Crucified One.
Do you expect the violent tools of the empire to suddenly create a new world of peace and justice? Or are you willing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, as he flips this world upside-down? Today and every day we are asked to choose -the way of Barabbas or the way of Jesus?
If Jesus of Nazareth had preached what passes for the “gospel” today — a shrunken, privatised, post-mortem gospel reduced to a promise of “going to heaven when you die” —
Pilate would have released the Nazarene, warning him not to get mixed up in the affairs of the real world.
But that’s not what happened. Why?
Because Pilate was smart enough to understand that what Jesus was preaching was a challenge to the philosophy of empire, or as we prefer to call it today, “superpower.”
But in making Jesus the chaplain-in-chief of Constantinian Christianity what we have unwittingly done is invent a Manichean Jesus who saves our souls, while leaving us free to run the affairs of the world as we see fit. Which is what we want.
Because while we believe in Jesus as saviour of the private soul, we remain largely unconvinced about his ideas for saving the world through non-violent means.