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Good Friday's Choice

Sermon - 4/02/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 15: 6-15

We 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:

6 Now 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 him.

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?  Maybe here?

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, etc? 

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:

"As 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.

I 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:

"A 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.

This 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.

When 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.

Let 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 retaliation."

And finally, in his closing paragraphs, Dr. King asserted:

"We still have a choice today:  non-violent co-existence, or violent co-annihilation."   

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 now.  

The time has come for us to choose, before it is too late.


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