Nov 24, 2021
From a Christian perspective, one of the greatest travesties of justice in human history occurred when the assembled group at Pilate’s judgement bar, clamored for the release of Barabbas over Jesus of Nazareth. The people’s choice was shouted to Pilate in the few, but pregnant words, “give us Barabbas!” This account, available in the Gospels, is more than just a historical record of an irrelevant event in a distant place and time. It illustrates truths and principles that are still at work today. In some ways we still cry, give us Barabbas!
Barabbas belonged to a militant group dedicated to freeing the Israelite nation by force of arms from Roman occupation. Rome had removed their political independence and had installed Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judaea. Pilate showed little appreciation of Israelite history and gross insensitivity to its religious tradition as a monotheistic nation, displaying images of Tiberius Caesar in prominent places in Jerusalem. Rome also levied taxes on Israel and took from it the option of capital punishment that had long been part of its theocracy. Because we share similar experiences of injustice and a quest for autonomy, sometimes by any means necessary, we find Barabbas appealing. Thus, we become vulnerable to what I call, “the Barabbas error.”
The Barabbas error illustrates the choice-nature of life. The Gospel writers inform that Pilate, the Roman Governor, was convinced of Jesus’ innocence of the charges of sedition brought against him by the religious leaders, and therefore, of the injustice of the sentence of death that they demanded. Pilate hoped to bring awareness to the obscenity of their request by presenting them with what he thought was an easy choice, Jesus, not Barabbas. Jesus, though offensive to some Jewish leaders, healed sick folks from various diseases, and gave them a sense of hope for coping with life’s pain and loss. Barabbas, on the other hand, being a murderer, had taken from some the most precious gift of life. Who would choose Barabbas over Jesus? But to Pilate’s horror, they easily chose the release of Barabbas and consequently, the condemnation of Jesus.
The people having made their choice, Pilate too, found himself in the grip of the choice scenario. Should he do the politically correct thing and grant their wishes contrary to his own conviction, or should he resist them and endanger his tenure as Governor? The Jews had compounded Pilate’s dilemma, saying to him, “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12 NIV). Interestingly, Pilate thinks there is a third option available to him. He takes water and washes his hands, symbolizing what he believes is his innocence from any ill that befalls Jesus. This, however, is an equivocation since Pilate had earlier summarized his options in conversation with Jesus in the following quote: "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" (John 19:10 NIV). Pilate lacked the moral courage to resist the people’s demand for the release of Barabbas, but in his release of Barabbas, he chose the death of Jesus – one whom he was convinced was innocent.
Thankfully, the options available to us today do not include taking the physical life of Jesus, but we are often caught in the crosscurrents of competing interests with tougher choices than which car to buy, where to go for vacation, or which size steak to order from the dinner menu. Sometimes our choices have greater moral implications and may involve the question of what to believe about Jesus, or if to accept or reject his claim to be the Son of God. Interestingly, two thousand years after Jesus’ trial and crucifixion we still find ourselves like Pilate, in a position of judgement, pondering the question, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matt. 27:22 NIV).
The Barabbas error also depicts human frailty seen in the manipulation of the masses by their leaders in an unjust cause. The Gospel writers reveal that the people’s choice of Barabbas was not just theirs but resulted from the urgings and incitement of their religious leaders. Their leaders felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity with the people and his exposure of their logical fallacies and religious double standards. For example, the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, deeming it to be a violation of its sanctity, but felt no qualms about untying a donkey for watering or rescuing a trapped sheep on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:9-11). Their hatred of Jesus assigned them the illogical position that a sheep was more valuable than a human being and blinded them to the greater work that he did, even on the Sabbath. They lifted out sheep that had fallen into mud pits, but Jesus lifted souls that had fallen into pits of hopelessness. They did the great work of watering donkeys, but Jesus did the greater work of reviving dehydrated souls with the water of truth. Hence, in pondering this historical event, we are reminded that leaders (whether religious, governmental, or social) are not to be deemed great simply because of their ability to persuade many. Where the people are being led remains a vital part of how we settle the question of good leadership.
That the Israelites were manipulated into such an egregious error also shows that the popular choice is not necessarily the right one. Their choice illustrates how easily human beings can be worked up emotionally and irrationally and used in an unjust cause. Awareness of this reality is reflected in the following words from the Torah “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd” (Ex. 23:2 NIV). “Good politics” often centers in giving the people what they want, but what the people want is not in itself the definition of justice. Rather than being the standard, people must be subject to a standard of justice, truth, and morality that is higher than themselves.
Learning from history involves more than knowledge of its facts, it also requires a commitment to not repeat its errors. To avoid the Barabbas error, then, we must admit that potentially, Barabbas lives in all of us. When we read of the people’s demand for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus, we do not do so from the safety of spectators. In fact, we may even hold affection and admiration for the Barabbas character who is never far from us. We must also be intentional in our pursuit of, and commitment to objective truth and righteousness; since in the choice scenario, we cannot choose from resources that are not present. Finally, we must be critical in our thinking, resisting the urge to run with the crowd. An effort to be discerning and scratch beneath the surface, even into hidden motives, will help mitigate the recurrence of the Barabbas error in our time.