are continuing in our examination during Lent of Holy Week, and on the
last 4 Sundays we have looked at Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and
Thursday as told in the gospel of Mark.
And so now we come to
Friday, which is of course is Good Friday, the day of crucifixion.
But there's much more in that story in Mark's gospel. In addition
to the crucifixion, recorded in the 15th chapter (the entirety of the
15th chapter) of Mark. The day begins with a hearing before Pilate
which in Mark is very short. It includes only a single exchange
between Pilate and Jesus, when Pilate asks that question 'Are you the
King of the Jews?'. And Jesus responds 'You
say so'. And thereafter is silent. And
the day ends with Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus to the tomb.
We'll come back to
the crucifixion story itself next Sunday, so this morning I want to
focus instead just on the interaction between Pilate and the crowd,
instead of Pilate and Jesus. And that very familiar, but tragic,
mistaken, choice made by that crowd. A choice that continues to
haunt and to challenge us to this day.
So listen for that
choice as Mark tells the story:
at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for
whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was
in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the
insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to
ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9Then
he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the
Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of
jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But
the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas
for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again,
‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of
the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify
him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil
has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So
Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and
after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
A couple of historical notes as I'm wanton
to make. First of all, this crowd turned against Jesus by the
authorities comes rather as a surprise in Mark. Because all along
in the story during holy week, Mark tells us the crowd is with
Jesus. They're enthralled by Jesus. They're big supporters
of Jesus. In fact, he even tells us that the religious authorities
are afraid to do anything about Jesus for fear of the crowd. And
hence the need for Judas, for someone to betray Jesus, to tell them when
and where they can find him when he won't be surrounded by such a crowd.
We often get the
impression, I think, from the passion rituals that we sometimes do,
shouting 'Hosanna!' in one breath and then 'crucify him' in the next,
that the Palm Sunday crowd has turned against Jesus on Good
Friday. But that's not the case. It's a different crowd in
Mark's gospel. The crowd here comes looking for Barabbas.
They're not looking to get Jesus. They are first and foremost
Barabbas supporters, not Jesus haters who are turned against Jesus by
the religious leaders.
And that leads me to
the second point: that the sentiment against Jesus here is solely
the creation of the temple leaders. Just as his execution is
solely the doing of the political leaders. The responsibility for
the death of Jesus lies uniquely and exclusively with this collaboration
between temple and palace. Those who blame the Jewish people or
the Jewish faith for the death of Jesus are the ones with the most blood
on their hands.
The only authentic
Christian faith possible after the holocaust is that which renounces and
repents of all attempts to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.
[That's another sermon I've given before, and I'm not going to go into that
further for now]
Mostly I want you to
take note of who Barabbas is, what he has done and why the crowd wants
Mark tells us that
Barabbas is in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during
the insurrection. Now, if you watched Mel Gibson's movie, The
Passion of the Christ, a few years ago, call to mind the image of
Barabbas in that movie. It's great, I think it's typically what we
do in all the movies -- we make Barabbas out to be this vile,
disgusting, absolutely despicable human being. And of course that
makes the decision of the crowd all the more perverse -- that they would
choose such a despicable person over Jesus. But that totally
misses the point (not that I've ever taken exception to anything in
Gibson's movie before J),
but it totally misses the point. Barabbas, you see, is a terrorist
in the eyes of the Romans, but he is a hero in the eyes of the local
people. He is a freedom fighter.
And by the way, you
know the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?
Just depends who's side you're on, that's the only difference.
So Barabbas is a
hero, he's one of the good guys, as far as the people are
concerned. He is a rebel engaged in a violent attempt to overthrow
the Roman governors in Palestine. Now think about this -- among
all the rebels that were in prison at that time, did the crowd come and
ask for Barabbas because he was the nicest one of the bunch? Did
they ask for him because he makes such good falafels down at the
park? Did they ask for him because his mother is ill and they want
him to go home to take care of his aging mother?
No! Why do they
ask for Barabbas? Because he's the meanest one of the bunch.
He's the tough guy. He's their hero. He is the leader of the
rebel cause. Or at least one of them.
Now I ask you
this: how likely is it that Pilate would release a rebel leader
intent on overthrowing his government? Regarding this custom of
Pilate to release a prisoner during a festival as a gesture of goodwill
to the people, Philo, a Jewish author of Alexandria about this same time
wrote that a wise governor would postpone an execution during festivals
just to avoid unnecessary unrest among the people. But nowhere do we find
in the annals of Roman history any precedent for pardoning one who is to
be executed, as Barabbas surely would have been.
Indeed, is there any
government, of any time, that would pardon a terrorist who was guilty of
killing its own citizens? Certainly not ours.
And so the story of
Barabbas vs Jesus has always bothered me. How can this be?
And the question, you see, is not why would this crowd choose Barabbas,
but why would Pilate release him? And the answer to that question,
proposed by Borg and Crossan in the book that we are studying for our
Lenten study (The
Last Week), something Crossan has proposed before in other books,
that answer is as profound then as it is as prophetic today.
You have heard me
mention on many occasions the war in Jerusalem from 66-74 that
culminates in the destruction of the Temple, the most magnificent
building by many accounts in all of the Mediterranean world at that
time. Destroyed in the year 70, and the complete destruction of
the city. There is wide agreement among New Testament scholars
that the gospel of Mark was written against the backdrop of that
war. Whether it was written before or after the city fell is
unclear, and ultimately it is not important. What is important is
that Jerusalem chose the path of violent resistance against Rome for
which it would ultimately pay the greatest penalty.
Now whether it's at
the time of Jesus' crucifixion or the time of the Jerusalem war some 35
years later, Barabbas represents the cause of insurrection and
rebellion. Thus the story that Mark writes is not only a story of
Jesus' passion and death, it is also a story of Jerusalem's passion and
death. It's as if Mark is saying to his first century
readers: "See, there in the palace of Pilate, the people of
Jerusalem were given a choice between Barabbas (son of the Father -- Bar
means son, Abba means father) and Jesus, son of God. Between the
way of the world and the way of God. Between the way of violence
and the way of non-violence. Between the way of war and the way of
peace. And they chose the wrong one. And in so doing, they
chose the path of their own destruction.
Do you suppose that
message has any relevance today? Maybe in places like Iraq?
Before you answer
that, think about this: who incited the crowds to choose Barabbas,
to choose the way of violence and war? Who are the chief priests
of places like Bosnia, and Cambodia, and Darfur, and Rwanda, Baghdad,
For the gospel to be
good news it must be news that is good today or it wouldn't be
news. So here the good news, people of God: from the gospel
of Mark -- we do not have to choose Barabbas. We do not have to
choose the way of violence. We do have a choice. We can
choose the way of Jesus, the way of God, the way of non-violence and
peace. The reign of God as presented by Jesus stands in judgment
of and as an alternative to the reign of the world as presented by the
chief priests of today. This is a choice that we can make.
Community Alliance of
Lane County, previously known as Clergy & Laity Concern, is
celebrating their 40th anniversary Tuesday night, here, with a dramatic
presentation of Dr. Martin Luther King's speech -- sermon -- that he
delivered in Riverside Church in New York City on April 4th, 1967,
exactly 1 year before his assassination. We honor Dr. King for
leading us to recognize, and hopefully to heal, the ugly scar that we
inflict upon our nation with the sin of racism. I think we should
honor Dr. King for challenging us to recognize and to heal the deadly
wound we leave upon the world for the sin of war.
You can hear that
sermon in its entirety on Tuesday night, I just want to uplift a couple
of key sections from it for our purpose today, that I think are very
profound and prophetic. Dr King, remember, 1967, said this:
I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have
told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their
problems. I've tried to offer them my deepest compassion while
maintaining my conviction that societies change most meaningfully through
non-violent actions. But they ask, and rightly so, 'what about
Vietnam?' They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses
of violence to solve its problems. To bring about the changes it
wanted. Their questions hit home. And I knew that I could
never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the
ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of
violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of
those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the
hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for peace was also a
commission. A commission to work harder than I had ever worked
before for the brotherhood of all. This is a calling that takes me
beyond national allegiances. But even if it were not present, I
would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry
of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the
making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask
me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not
know that the good news was meant for all people? For communists
and capitalists? For their children and ours? For black and
for white? For revolutionary and conservative? Have they
forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his
enemies so fully that he died for them?"
There was a lot of
talk of 'values' in the last election. So here is what Dr. King
says about values:
true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of
war: this way of settling differences is not just. This
business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nations
homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into
veins of people's normally humane, of sending men home from dark and
bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged,
cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that
continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than
on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond
one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an
all-embracing and unconditional love for all people. This often
misunderstood and misinterpreted concept has now become an absolute
necessity for the survival of humanity.
I speak of love, I'm not speaking of some sentimental and weak
response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great
religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.
Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to the
ultimate reality. As summed up in the first epistle of Saint
John: because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God
and knows God.
us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can
no longer afford to worship a God of hate, or bow before the altar of
And finally, in his
closing paragraphs, Dr. King asserted:
still have a choice today: non-violent co-existence, or violent
That is the choice
between Jesus and Barabbas. Whether we are reading Mark, or we
are reading Martin Luther King, it is the same choice, then and
The time has come for
us to choose, before it is too late.