The fourth in a series of five addresses reflecting on characters appearing in the Gospel readings for each day of Holy Week from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Our eye-witnesses thus far have been peaceful and private people: Simon the leper, Simon of Cyrene and the maid at the house of the High Priest. Today’s eye-witness is entirely different. He appears in the Prayer Book Gospel reading from Saint Luke in a shout from the crowd, “Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas”. Saint Luke notes, “Who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison”.
Barabbas was in a dungeon and is awaiting execution. He is variously described as a a robber, bandit and criminal, but the crime for which he is to be executed is murder during an insurrection in the city. During a revolt against the Romans, Barabbas has killed someone, probably a Roman soldier or official. In modern terms, he is a terrorist.
We are unsure of the occasion of Barabbas’ arrest. There were two revolts against Pilate. On the first occasion, Jews in Jerusalem objected to the standards carried by the Roman soldiers. These often bore the image of the emperor, who was considered to be of divine status by the Romans. Previous governors had removed the standards so as not to offend the Jews, whose Law forbade graven images. Pilate refused this concession and was faced with a revolt. The second occasion arose from Pilate’s attempts to improve the water supply in Jerusalem; he decided to fund the building of an aqueduct by taking money from the Temple treasury.
If Barabbas’ crime had been involvement in revolts that would have been perceived as somehow patriotic, it is odd that Saint Matthew would refer to him as ‘notorious’. Perhaps he was involved in some more petty act of terrorism, achieving nothing more than the pointless loss of innocent life.
Scholars looking at Barabbas’ name have tried to draw conclusions about him. ‘Bar’ meaning son and ‘abba’ meaning father can also be used in a religious sense to mean ‘son of the rabbi’. If Barabbas came from the devout religious background typical of the house of a rabbi, he has gone a long way from it by the time he appears in the Gospel story.
Barabbas appears at the point in the story where Pontius Pilate is trying to release Jesus. Pilate can find no fault in Jesus and tries to use an amnesty as a means of setting Jesus free, but the crowd have been whipped up into a frenzy by the religious leaders, “Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas.”
Why the name Barabbas came up, we do not know. Did Pilate first mention the name, or did it come from the religious leaders? Barabbas was not the only person under sentence of death; why was his name the one shouted by the crowd? Perhaps his name was Barabbas in the religious sense, perhaps he was the son of a rabbi and the clergy wanted him released.
It seems more likely that it was Barabbas name that was shouted because his political beliefs would have been shared by many of the crowd. There would have been support for the idea of a violent uprising, the use of force to expel the Romans.
The crowd shouts louder each time Pilate tries to reason with them. They want the son of a father on Earth; they reject the Son of the Father in heaven.
Imagine being there in Barabbas’ place at that moment. Perhaps you are in earshot of the events taking place. You are lying in a dungeon with an armed guard standing outside. A sentence of death hangs over you; death that would be slow and painful. You feel utterly wretched; there is no future, no hope.
Then you hear the shouts of the crowd, ‘Barabbas! Barabbas!’ What an astonishing thing to happen. You have been told that you are being freed. You know you are guilty; they know you are guilty; but all the charges have been dropped. It is too good to be true. ‘Surely’, you think, ‘there must be a catch’. You expect someone to come and say that it is a cruel joke. You are amazed as the chains attached to your ankles and wrists are released and you are shown the way out.
As you walk out, the bright morning sun dazzles your eyes, which have become accustomed to the darkness of the dungeon. After the stench in the cells, you drink in the fresh clean air outside. There are so many things you want to do; so many places you want to go; it’s like beginning life all over again.
We don’t know what Barabbas did with his new life. He disappears from the story after this one brief mention. Perhaps he would have been curious about this man Jesus; perhaps he even found faith.
What we do know is that Barabbas is representative of all of us. He is freed because Jesus is punished. This is the message at the very heart of the Gospel: we are a wretched and sinful people deserving God’s judgment, but we are set free. We are given a chance of a new life because Jesus has taken our place.
Like Barabbas, we can walk out, with no charge against us; free to live a new and fuller life.
Each time we celebrate Holy Communion, we are reminded that God gave his “Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption”. We have redemption. We have been set free from the punishment we deserve and free from fear, for there is no fear worse than death and even death holds no fear for us. Like Barabbas, we can walk out into the light, we can breathe in the fresh air, we can thank God that we are alive.
Barabbas knew what it meant for Jesus to stand in his place. The holy Communion is a constant reminder that Jesus has stood in our place; that through him we have been freed; that through him we have life.