March 15, 2007
No character of the Passion leaves us with a lingering question like Barabbas. His story is broken off before it concludes. Barabbas was a “bandit” (Jn 18:40). The gospels paint him as much more than a petty thief.
Both Mark and Luke charge Barabbas with murder (cf. Mk 15:11; Lk 23:19). He is a troublemaker who incited people to riot. Not a difficult task at a time when Zealots were ready with sword in hand to overthrow the Roman oppressors. In the eyes of the people, the Zealots were patriots. For the government, terrorists. Zealots were everywhere, even among Jesus’ chosen friends. In listing the twelve apostles, Luke labels Simon “the Zealot.” And the surname of Judas Iscariot could well mean “
sicarius,”or "dagger man."
Not one of the gospels gives us the names of either of the two criminals crucified to the right and left of Jesus. But, every one of them remembers the name of Barabbas. They could not forget him. He was notorious. This prisoner was a well-known ringleader who caused harm even to his own people. He is guilty of the very crime falsely leveled against Jesus: subverting the authority of Caesar.
Barabbas’ name is very interesting. Ancient manuscripts of the gospel text give us his full name as Jesus Barabbas. In the first century, Jesus or Joshua was not an uncommon name. That is why it was common to add a patronymic to it. Jesus is called “Jesus, Bar Joseph, from Nazareth” (Jn 1:45 cf. 6:42). Barabbas would therefore be a surname.
The patronymic “Barabbas” is a contraction of two words, “Bar” or “son” and “Abba.” “Abba” could either be a man’s first name or the Aramaic word for “father” or “daddy.” In copying the gospel texts, ancient scribes took it upon themselves to copy only this man’s surname. Like the famous theologian Origen, they could not bear a wicked person bearing the same first name as the Savior.
All the gospels tell us that Pilate tried to free Jesus by offering the crowds the choice between Barabbas and Jesus. Pilate knows that Jesus has been handed over to him because the leaders of the people were envious. Jesus had too much influence over the people. Jealousy also played a part in handing the apostles Peter and Paul over for their martyrdom. “Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death” (1
Clement 5:12). Envy also divided the community of Corinth. Envy causes great harm.
It was the Passover custom to release a prisoner in celebration of the Jews’ great feast of liberation. Pilate takes the occasion to rid himself of condemning an innocent man to death. He places the choice before the rabble. Jesus or Barabbas.
Crowds are notoriously fickle. Herod the Great undertook the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Insensitive to the religious fervour of the Jews, he placed a golden eagle on the gate. This symbol of Roman power outraged the Jews. Some young men were encouraged by their rabbis to tear it down. The crowds joined in and promised support. When the Romans caught 40 of these young men tearing the eagle down, the people feared for themselves and withdrew support. The young men were summarily executed (Josephus,
The Jewish Wars, 1.33.3). Selfish interest too easily casts principles to the wind!
The crowds that gather around Pilate had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem just six days before. Their throats are still hoarse from shouting their “Hosannas.” Now they begin to shout for Jesus’ death. Pressure from a small, well-organized group that had turned on Jesus incited them to demand the death penalty (cf. Mk 15:11). Pressure groups still sway politicians and legislators to make decisions against justice and the common good. It takes a strong individual to stand apart from the crowd and hold firm to principle.
There were many struggles within Jerusalem against the Romans. Rebels were routinely crucified. An example for others with the same intent. Eventually this constant unrest precipitated the Jewish aristocracy’s lost of control both of the city and their Temple. When some of the Jewish leaders incite the crowd to call for the release of Barabbas, they are actually contributing to the loss of their own authority. Doing evil to others ultimately harms us more than the ones we seek to harm.
The choice Pilate offers the crowd is dramatic. Two men. The one is called the Christ. He is innocent and sinless. He is the true Son of the Father. The other is called Barabbas. He is guilty and sinful. Both men have the same first name, Jesus.
The crowd is swayed. Luke tells us, “As one man, they howled, ‘Away with him! Give us Barabbas!’” (Lk 23:18). In the synagogue of Capernaum, the man possessed by a demon “howled” after Jesus (cf. Lk 4:33). The Gerasene demoniac also “howled” at the top of his voice (cf. Lk 8:28). The crowd now “howls.” Their evil is more than human. This is the hour of Satan. In choosing Barabbas, they side with Satan. Justice is perverted. Innocence condemned. Public opinion is not always right, but it is always strong. It can do much violence to the innocent.
Pilate is weak. Though he was willing to save Jesus, he is unwilling to destroy his career by having the people turn against him. He yields to the crowd’s persistent cries. They shout for the one who promises political freedom by the sword. They reject the one who brings true freedom through love. The choice of Barabbas unmasks the populace’s ideal. They want a Messiah to take up arms against Rome. They admire the rebel, not the peacemaker. We always judge ourselves by the heroes we admire.
Jesus is taken to be crucified. Barabbas goes free. Jesus’ death is more than just one man dying instead of another. It is the Just One dying
for all others. His death atones for the sins of the world.
Here ends the story of the murderer let loose on society. Barabbas knows that Jesus is dying in his place. But we have no way of knowing what effect this has on him. Is he moved to repentance? Does he return to his old ways? Does he use the new freedom to do good? The gospels leave unsaid what choice Barabbas makes with his new gift of freedom. Wisely so. Barabbas is each of us for whom Jesus died. We need to answer that question for ourselves!