The Gospel texts for Holy Week present numerous instances where Biblical characters must choose between one option and another, between allegiance to Christ and renunciation. The “triumphal entry” crowd, for example, must choose between Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom and one leading to the cross. Judas must choose between allegiance to Jesus and betraying his messiahship. But how does one preach such choosing without slipping into “decisionism” (cognitively adjudicating the merits of Christ and choose the salvation He offers), which presupposes an anthropology of human ability (where unregenerate persons possess faith and powers of spiritual discernment)? How does one avoid such transactional theology (if we do this, then God does that) and stay true to sola gratia (salvation by divine grace alone)?
Matthew 27:15-22, one of the Gospel texts for the Sunday of the Passion, guides us in the way of orthodoxy when it comes to the question of what kind of “choosing” should be preached. The Evangelist paints the scene of Jesus’ Roman trial. Before Jesus and Pilate stands Jerusalem’s mob, corralled by members of the Sanhedrin. They will choose. This is the people’s election. Pontius Pilate, in fact, gives them a clear choice. One man was to be chosen for life and one for death: Either Barabbas must die and the one called “Christ” will live, or the Christ must die, and Barabbas will live. A peculiar Jewish Passover custom allowed one prisoner to be freed — the man to be selected by the people. And on this occasion, it was a landslide victory in favor of Barabbas — the people’s choice. This is how natural, unregenerate humanity chooses. We will not have this Man rule over us, even when He is declared the Christ, perhaps especially so.
It was, in a way, a fair contest. For both men were being held as revolutionaries. Matthew describes Barabbas as, “a notorious prisoner.” The other Gospels tell us more. From the four Gospels together, the dossier builds up like this: the notorious prisoner was a robber, a brigand, who had taken part in a certain insurrection in the city of Jerusalem and was a murderer. Barabbas was a revolutionary, a freedom fighter in his own mind, of course, but of the most ruthless kind. Today, he would be a jihadi or terrorist. Christ was also on trial as a revolutionary. The tide of his trial changed when his accusers hit Pilate at his most vulnerable spot. Just as Pilate was about to release Him, they cried, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” There is even a further parallel between the two men. Ancient records tell us Barabbas had a first name too. His name was Jesus Barabbas. Jesus Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth, these two competed for the people’s favor. Each had the name of Jesus, which means “savior,” and each, in their own way, tried to live up to it. Barabbas sought to save his people from the Roman imperialism which held them in bondage. By fair means or foul, by stealing or killing, that was his aim. Jesus of Nazareth sought to save His people from Satan’s imperialism and the bondage of sin. Not by stealing, but by giving. Not by killing, but by healing and raising. Not by taking a life, but by giving His life, that was His aim. He, too, was a freedom fighter, but the kingdom He sought was not of this world.
Jesus of Nazareth sought to save His people from Satan’s imperialism and the bondage of sin. Not by stealing, but by giving.
Such was the choice facing the people of Jerusalem. Tomorrow, they knew one man would walk free and the other would be dead. Which did they choose for freedom? “Not this man, but Barabbas,” they cried. This means they felt safer with a robber and murderer at liberty in their streets than with the Son of God among them. This was not and never is the work of the Holy Spirit. Only by the Holy Spirit does one confess Jesus truly is the Christ. Barabbas they could manage, but Nazareth, “No.” His manifesto was much more threatening and much more demanding, and so, the choice is made: “Crucify Him, crucify Him.”
This is how the people of Jerusalem made their choice at the trial of Jesus. Through the ages people have faced the same option at every turn of their lives. The choice of the mob has been the eternal choice. Barabbas was the man of force, the man of blood, the man who chose to reach his end by violent means. Jesus was the man of love and gentleness, who would have nothing to do with force (other than to absorb it on behalf of His people) and whose Kingdom was in the hearts of men and women, ruling and reigning by the Spirit of God. It is a tragic fact of history that all through the ages, humanity has chosen the way of Barabbas and refused the way of Jesus. Our voice. Our choice.
Then there is grace. Grace is about God’s choice when we cannot by our own reason or strength choose Christ or come to Him. When the grace of God is shed abroad in our hearts, the unwilling become willing. Those disinclined find themselves inclined. The indisposed are disposed. The unloving now love because He first loved us. Grace says, yes, choose as you will, and you will choose only according to your nature (you cannot choose above your nature). As St. Paul proclaims to the Ephesians:
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:4-9)
Having been enlightened and revivificated by the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus, we are now free to choose. Today we still must choose. There is always the way of Barabbas, where we can set ourselves to fight the system, fight the world, and fight God. And there is the way of Christ, where we can fight the enemy within, fight the flesh, fight sin, death and the Devil, or rather where He can fight those tyrants, because we take to our hearts the Man of God who has defeated this unholy alliance for us.
But still, in my life, in your life, in the life of the world, the answer comes back loud and clear: “Not this man, but Barabbas.” Did we think we had heard the last of the cry drifting over the waters from Northern Ireland, where for so long the name of Jesus Christ has been used to justify the methods of Jesus Barabbas, or was it merely drowned out by the same refrain sounding in the other ear from the Middle East. Perhaps we were deafened to it, in the noise of two crumbling towers in New York. But listen carefully, and the words distilling from the sound of each outrage are these: “Not this man, but Barabbas.”
Of course, these are fanatical minorities. But the struggle in the human heart is the same throughout fallen humanity, and we must all, “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Which salvation? The heart alienated from its Maker clamors for the variety it understands. It seeks the salvation and freedom of comfort and affluence, of pitting myself against the world and coming out on top, getting on, making the most of life by fair means or not so fair. But the silent Man brought before Pontius Pilate, who, like a sheep before her shearers is dumb, like a lamb led to the slaughter, brings a different salvation altogether.
How often the heart cries, “Not this man, but Barabbas,” because Christ is a threat to us. He threatens our complacency and the comfort of easy gratification and the easy, cheap salvation from our frustrations that is no solution at all. The Son of God, who was mocked as an impotent parody of a king, extends His scepter deep into the hearts and lives of His own, and overcomes the ruthless Barabbas within.
I think those who brought Him to this place knew this. From the moment He healed a man’s withered hand one Sabbath many months before, they decided He must die and took counsel together as to how they might do it. From the moment the voice of creation sounded at the tomb of Lazarus to call life out of death, the High Priest had passed his sentence, that it is expedient for one man to die for the people. They knew it was Him or them. There was no room for their heavy fisted, self-gratifying Barabbas-ness alongside the bringer of the Kingdom of God. Pilate knew it. It was out of envy they delivered Him up. So, they hung Jesus of Nazareth on a cross.
Finally, from the cross He began to speak. He uttered the one sentence that contradicted all they knew or could understand. “Father forgive them.” His choice to forgive. His choice to give. Now, no longer is the Son of Man silent like the dumb lamb brought to the slaughter. He continues to say it, again and again, before the throne of God: “Father forgive them.”
Now, no longer is the Son of Man silent like the dumb lamb brought to the slaughter. He continues to say it, again and again, before the throne of God: “Father forgive them.”
God has made His choice. It is such a surprising one. Whenever people have rummaged their imagination to understand God, they have always created Him in their own image. They have made a Barabbas God; one who meets out violence and vengeance. God has every right to that, to extract His dues from His own creation. But God’s choice is this: “Not Barabbas, but this man.” Therein are we justified by grace, through faith, because of Jesus, who is called Christ.
If all the world should choose to follow the man of violence rather than to be led by Christ, each to serve himself, rather than to be served by God, the world has chosen wrongly and is rightly condemned for it. For God has chosen His chosen one.
In the events we recall this week, the moments of His trial, His sentence, His execution, God’s choice reaches its decisive climax. Jesus of Nazareth has set out to save us from sin, and this is where it has led Him, to His death. This was the choice of God, “For,” in the words of Saint Paul, “in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on Earth or in Heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19).
And we, who by nature choose repeatedly to follow the brute choice of the mob, who cannot follow the lamb in His perfection, “You,” to pick up Saint Paul again, “who were dead in trespasses…, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Preach, then, not Barabbas, but this Man.