Power and Passion 2: Barabbas
Passage: Mark 15:6–15:15
What do we do when we feel powerless? My youngest son Evan is in one of my favorite stages right now. It was my favorite stage when my oldest was in this stage. This stage is from like 18 months to 2 and a half. When they have personality, they can express themselves, you can play with them, they can play by themselves. They’re cute, they’re funny, and they’re sweet. You get some good stories out of them. They have just enough independence to do some things on their own but not too much that they want to be the boss of everyone and everything.
I’m trying to enjoy this stage as much as I can. Because I know what’s coming.
What do we do when we feel powerless? Pretty soon Evan is going to develop just a bit more independence and that independence is going to make him want to do the thing he wants to do very badly. And the one thing he wants to do is going to become the most important thing in the whole world. And he’s gonna be told no a lot. And he’s gonna start feeling very powerless. And thus begins the terrible two’s, three’s, fearsome four’s whatever you want to call it. As human beings from the very moment we want to exert power and influence we do not react well to feelings of being powerless.
Now its one thing to talk about not being able to have candy at 9 o’clock in the morning, but its entirely another thing when we look at oppressed people. Which is precisely what the people Israel were under Roman rule. They were a conquered people, they were a controlled people. While they still retained some autonomy deep down their identity were a free people with their God granting and guaranteeing their freedom. Being ruled by Rome was a daily reminder that the way they lived was not as they were meant to live.
In his book Power and Passion Sam Wells outlines four basic responses to the powerlessness felt by Israelites in Jesus’ day. The first was collaboration. This was the response chosen by the privileged people. Herod and his sons. The religious authorities. Tax collectors. They worked with Rome as a way of maintaining their own power and privilege. The Temple authorities could continue to run the Temple so long as they worked in concert with the Roman authorities. Tax collectors had wealth and privilege so long as they sent the necessary taxes to the Empire. Wells writes, “Collaboration involved a sober recognition that the sovereignty of Israel was dead and buried. The restoration of the successors of King David was a fantasy.” Collaboration was for people who had given up hope of being restored to their original identity.
The second option was reform. This wasn’t the first time in Israel’s history they had lost their independence or that God had punished them as a nation. Within Israel’s history there’s plenty of evidence, see Judges, that political threat is a response to Israel’s unfaithfulness. So the best way to regain our independence is to return to a righteous way of living following the Law. Borrowing from numerous stories in the Old Testament history and from the prophets, different groups sought a return to holy living as a way of calling God to remember His people. John the Baptist led a reform movement and probably the most charitable read of the Pharisees would say they were in this vein.
The third option was the withdraw. This is somewhat of a combination of the first and second. It borrows from the first that hope for a renewed Kingdom is lost and the second that the only way life will get better is a return to holiness. But this response says on a macro-level Israel will never be holy. Our only shot at holiness is to start small intentional communities where holiness can truly be lived out. The best example of this was the Essenes, a group of highly devout Israelites who fled to the desert where they could live a rigorously devout life. They didn’t believe this would bring about a restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, but they saw it as the only way in which they could experience life as God designed them to live.
The fourth option was a response intent on restoring the kingdom through violence. Wells writes, “It was universally assumed that the golden era lay in the past and that all that could be desired was a restoration of that previous blessed order. For Jews, that blessed era was generally perceived to be the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ.” The Zealots were the primary group of people committed to a certain type of restoration. The Zealots sought a violent overthrow of the power systems that kept a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom from becoming a reality. In that they borrowed the basic grammar of Roman rule: namely power through violence. And they responded to being powerless through exerting the power they did have, the power to incite violence, over anyone that had power within the unjust systems.
I mention these responses to powerlessness because today we are going to look at a character in the passion narrative that embodied the fourth response. Last week there was an oblique reference to a person that the crowd demanded be released as Jesus was put to death. His name was Barabbas and he was the one the crowd wanted set free while Jesus was led to the cross. This morning we are going to look at Barabbas, who he was, what he wanted, how he went about it. And how his way of responding to his powerlessness was diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus.
So let’s take a look at what Mark says about Barabbas.
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
In all four Gospels Jesus and Barabbas were brought into this diametric opposition. In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel do you know what it says Barabbas’ first name is? Jesus. You can’t make this stuff up. Let’s keep going with this. In Jewish culture names have meanings. Barabbas is an amalgamation of two Hebrew words. Bar as a prefix in a name means son of. Abba was the intimate word for father; it was like papa or daddy. Abba was how Jesus Christ referred to God in the Gospels and indicated the intimate relationship Jesus had with God.
It’s as if the Gospel writers are doing everything they can to connect Jesus Christ and Jesus Barabbas in any way they can except for what might be the most crucial way.
Because we also know this about Barabbas: he was convicted of murdering people during the insurrection. He was a Zealot. He sought a return to the Davidic Kingdom via violent takeover. He wanted to intimidate the Romans into going home and the folks that collaborated with the Romans to give up their power.
Jesus also sought to restore the Davidic Kingdom. But he was going to do it through a different way. Jesus was going to restore the Davidic Kingdom through submitting to the way God was going to redeem Israel.
And the difference between the two couldn’t be more stark.
Sam Wells writes about the Zealots: On the contrary, the Zealots offered little more than one thing: a change of government, an alteration in the personnel operating a system that assumed the domination of the laboring classes by powerful elites. In comparison to Jesus’ program, the Zealots challenged not too much but too little; the problem was not what they wanted to change but how much they assumed would stay the same. And the problem with the violent methods the Zealots used was likewise not that they were too strong but that they were too weak.
Barabbas wanted to expel the Roman government from Judea. He wanted to do it violently. Because when Barabbas looked at the world he accepted the basic way the Romans taught him to understand power. He accepted the way the Romans used and held power. He accepted certain things about this world. But those things were not based on the way God had designed the world or what God wanted for the world. They weren’t based on who God has shown Himself to be in the Old Testament and the history of Israel. They were based on what the Romans had shown Barabbas about the world. Barabbas accepts the Roman logic of this world, the no-God logic of this world, and acts accordingly. He acts out of an understanding of the world that believes violence is power. And so if Barabbas and people like him were to have gained control of Judea by expelling the Romans they would have ruled in the exact same way as the Romans did. They would have believed power came through might and security came through believing you could exert more violence over your enemies than they could over you. The names at the top would have changed, but the basic way of life would have reminded the same. The Zealots were not going to create a new society.
Contrast that with the way of Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to turn the other cheek. Jesus tells his followers to put away their swords. Jesus tells his followers to give all they have, give all they can, to the creation of a new society based on a new way of living. Jesus tells his followers to trust in God and trust in not only what God is doing in the world but also how God is doing it.
Jesus doesn’t merely want to change the names of the folks at the top, Jesus imagines a new society, and Jesus imagines a new Kingdom. A Kingdom whose power isn’t based on a Roman Empire understanding of power. But a Kingdom whose power is based on the nature and being of God. Wells writes: By contrast, on the other hand, is Jesus—the real revolutionary. Jesus does not assume that others must die so that he may be free. He recognizes that he must die so that others may be free. Freedom is not worth killing for, but it is worth dying for. Jesus does exactly what he expects his followers to do: he denies himself and takes up his cross. Jesus is a real revolutionary because he promises a totally new empire—not the rule of Caesar but the Kingdom of God; a completely new form of rule—not being serve but serving; a vastly different manner of ushering in the new regime—not the horse of war but the donkey of peace; and a unique mode of transformation—not revolution but resurrection.
Jesus and Barabbas couldn’t be more different; they are the perfect foils for one another. And their very difference, and the extent to which they are different, are everything for us as we look about how to follow Jesus in our world. Because we too struggle against powers and principalities. We are daily reminded that our world is not as it ought to be. And how do we, as followers of Christ and Easter people, bring about more and more of God’s reign in our world?
The way of Barabbas is to assume the logic and grammar of this world are all that is. It is to internalize the logic of this world, the no-God logic of this world. It’s to believe that there are winners and losers in life and our job is to win. It’s to believe everyone is selfish and unless you are looking out for #1 you’re a chump. It’s to act of out a place that says my well-being, my family, my tribe are what’s most important and if this life is a zero-sum game I’ll put up with others losing if it means I win.
The way of Barabbas says this life is a struggle, it’s a fight, and we must win. And its to impose that believe over other people.
The way of Jesus is the opposite. There’s a famous story in the Gospels about a woman who had an affliction that made her permanently unclean. She believes that if she could just make it to and touch Jesus she might be healed. Now in Israelite society this would have been a scandal, if an unclean person touched a clean person that would make the clean person unclean. That’s not too far from the logic of Barabbas. And often the solution was to expel all the unclean. But anyways, this woman makes her way to Jesus and touches the hem of his cloak. And she was healed. You see this is how it is with Jesus. Her uncleanliness didn’t make him unclean; rather Jesus’ holiness makes her holy. The way of Jesus is not about expelling that which is unclean, rather its seeing holiness as an infectious disease.
The way of Jesus is seeing that being Holy, doing what God would have us do, is contagious. It spreads. Sam Wells writes, “Holiness is not an achievement secured by keeping oneself unsullied by the world. It is an infectious disease caught by keeping close to Jesus and to the people with whom he spent his time.” And as we catch that disease of holiness and bear it unto the world we might spread the contagion more and more into the world.
So my questions to you this day are these:
- Are you standing close enough to Jesus to be infected by his holiness?
- Are you living your life in such a way that you are passing on the contagion that is the holiness of God?
(Take a few minutes to discuss? To think?)