Breath of the Spirit: Do We Want to Be Barrabas?
Sometimes the choices between good and evil seem so stark. But clear choices are not necessarily easy. It is possible to see where different paths lead and still not be sure which way is better. It is possible to want the good so badly that one is willing to sacrifice certain ideals to get it. This may be construed as laudable flexibility or selling out one’s principles depending upon how things work out. Luke’s passion account puts us right in the midst of just such a quandary with regard to choosing Jesus or Barabbas for release. Peacefulness or power, which is the better path to accomplishing some good in the world. In Luke’s Passion, the crowd chooses power. In the heat of difficult decisions and an increasingly divided world, what will I choose?
April 10, 2022: Passion (Palm) Sunday
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Luke 22:14 – 23:56
Do We Want Barabbas?
A reflection by John Falcone
“We want Barabbas!”
In Luke’s Passion story – which is the gospel for Palm Sunday – this is how we as a congregation respond when Pilate offers to release Jesus to us.
“Away with him! We want Barabbas!”
We start Palm Sunday with the disciples celebrating Jesus (“It’s the Messiah, the One Who Is Coming, the one who will finally bring peace!”), and we end it with them “standing at a distance” while the crowd condemns Jesus and asks for Barabbas.
What’s so attractive about this Barabbas? What might they (or we) find in him to admire?
The gospels do give us a few details about Barabbas. Luke 23:19 tells us that he was imprisoned for starting a riot in Jerusalem, and for murder (or perhaps better, for assassination). Mark 15:7 tells us that the riot was an “uprising.” John 18:40 says that he was a lêstês, a word often translated as “bandit” but used in other contexts to describe revolutionaries. We’ll come back to Matthew’s description at the end.
By these accounts, we know that Barabbas was a committed activist; and that in itself can be attractive. We also know that he was willing to use violence. That is troubling, but does it put him in the wrong? Questions about pacifism are not easy to answer. Movements like the Catholic Worker and the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Church of the Brethren) argue that being Christian requires us to reject violence. I once asked my undergrad students to read a Mennonite essay: it argued that Christians must not become soldiers or work as police officers; that we should try to avoid calling the police; and that Christian universities should ask police officers to check their guns at the gate while on campus. The essay was not well received.
Barabbas was a committed activist who was willing to use violence to bring out political change. But I suspect Barabbas’ attraction runs even deeper than his stance toward violence.
I suspect one might be attracted to Barabbas’ spirit of ruthlessness. Although it is difficult to admit it, I know that I can be. As I learn the horrific details of the war in Ukraine, some days I welcome more Russian deaths. What else is likely to stop Putin’s invasion? Surely, Barabbas would have felt the same: hard ball, power politics. When an ultra-conservative church leader is swallowed by scandal and goes down in disgrace, a part of me celebrates. Which is more likely: their conversion or their public defeat?
Committed activism, ruthlessness, and hard ball power politics. Some days I admire that spirit. LGBTQ people and immigrants, poor people and people of color have lived too long at the wrong end of someone else’s stick. We know what it’s like to have rights and opportunities taken away from us. Many of us have been attacked emotionally, psychologically, and theologically. Many have suffered physical violence. Many live in fear for their lives, even today. I have not lived fifty-plus years without learning how to play hard ball; how to use emotional and political pressure to get something done; how to defend myself and my loved ones.
Today’s readings, though, point to different possibilities. Isaiah connects the power of God to sustaining the weary, and accepting insults and humiliation. Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that Jesus reigns supreme over all of creation, precisely because he did not use power in that way, choosing instead to live (and die) with the oppressed. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and so many others, have similarly shown us how to absorb violence with integrity, instead of projecting it outward and multiplying it in the world. If on some days I admire Barabbas, I also admire these nonviolent activists. Who can you name in your own life or community who has combined iron commitment with a soft and compassionate heart?
Matthew 26:16-17 offers us one additional detail on Barabbas: “At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’” (Some manuscripts drop Jesus and simply call him Barabbas, but most scholars agree that Jesus Barabbas is the original text.)
In Aramaic, the language of first century Palestine, Barabbas would be written bar Abba: “the son of Abba, the son of the father.” How easy it is to confuse “Jesus, bar Abba” with Jesus, the Messiah, whom we’re called to adore. That would have been true linguistically back in Jesus’ time, and it is true spiritually today.
This week’s readings do not offer a plan of action for the great emergencies that we face: racism, authoritarianism, climate catastrophe, wars, “Don’t Say Gay,” and so many more. Instead, they offer us two different understandings of power that can shape our action in response to these great crises. They invite us to choose between two kinds of hero, two visions of what God is about. In the end, they ask us – as Pilate asked the crowd in Luke’s account of the Passion – to choose what we find more attractive, to choose what we want to adore.
Do we want power politics or compassionate commitment?
Do we want Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth?
Most days I am attracted to both. My prayer this Palm Sunday, is to seek more consistently the compassionate commitment of Jesus.
John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.