Maundy Thursday 2010: Fifth Holy Week Sermon
Re-reading the story: Luke 23:1-56
Our re-reading of the story through each evening of Holy Week has attempted to see episodes through different lenses: on Sunday we looked at the entry into Jerusalem in the context of Scriptural prophecies; on Monday we looked at the debate with the opponents as a piece of political campaigning; on Tuesday our emphasis was on theological ideas as Jesus talked about the day of judgment and the end of time; last night we looked at the Last Supper as worship, as the foundation of the liturgical life of the church. The Scriptural, the political, the theological, the liturgical; tonight we conclude with the individual, because it is with the individual that our faith must start.
We are going to look at a particular individual from this evening’s reading; an unpleasant individual—Barabbas. Barabbas was in a dungeon and is awaiting execution. He is variously described as 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.
Scriptural, political, theological, liturgical—faith can be many things, but for faith to be anything, it must start with the individual; it must start with ourselves.
(It never ceases to amaze me that even though people may read the same Book… even the same words in that Book, come away with an entirely different interpretation. It amazes me even more that some people do not even see the same words or ideas that are contained and expressed in that Book.)
Interpreted: “Scholars looking at Barabbas’ name have tried to draw conclusions about him.”
Nowhere in the Gospels is the ‘name’: “Barabbas” mentioned, -it is what He was ‘called’. “Barabbas” is not a proper name or surname (any more so than is “Christ”), -it is an Aramaic appellation, -the meaning of which is: Bar = Son + Abba = Father (as in ‘the Father of us all’ or, ‘God’, if you will). It is not as you ‘re-interpret’ it to mean as also in a religious sense: ‘son of a rabbi’…. it is what it is i.e., (the) ‘Son of the Father’ or ‘Son of God’. You go on to ‘interpret’ (without any historically documented basis of fact) that: “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.
Despite the fact that He is ‘documented’ only in the Holy Gospels… as being “a notorious robber, murderer and insurrectionist” (without evidence, much less proof), nothing whatsoever is known about Him, -save that which is written in the original Gospel according or attributed to Matthew (27:17)… that, He name Jesus [Barabbas] appears… but, that His name “Jesus” was removed or omitted from the Latin ‘translation’ (read ‘interpreted’) of the same text (around 390 c. e.) and most of the subsequent ‘translations’ thereafter.
Now, I can only hypothesize as to who He may be (and I shall do so at a later time)… in the meantime, I leave to more confident heads to come to their own conclusions.
More to the issue at hand… your further speculation re. “What we do know is that Barabbas is representative of all of us.”
Would that the above be true… not merely because of the Aramaic appellation above… but also because I, for one, agree with the Jews’ demand to crucify ‘the descendant of David and Jewish messiah’.
Now, why would I, like the Jews, agree that ‘the descendant of David and Jewish messiah’ should be given the death sentence?
I am confident that the Jews knew (and knows full well) their own history… certainly, of the days when the first king of the Jews (Saul of the tribe of Benjamin) was ‘anointed’. King Saul was eventually stripped of his kingly office and was relegated to head the military campaign against the Philistines. Saul “fell upon his own sword” rather than being captured. This ‘sinful’ act brought everlasting dishonor and shame upon his immediate family and tribe in general. He was replaced by the ‘anointment’ of David’, of the tribe of Judah.
King David was succeeded by the ‘anointment’ of his son, Solomon. King Solomon was succeeded by his son, Rehoboam… however, Rehoboam (as well as Solomon’s and David’s ‘theocratic governance’) was rejected by ten tribes, -who, established a parallel ‘secular government’, headed by Jeroboam instead.
This schism among the Jews continued down through the centuries… into the days of the Roman installed and supported: Herod the Great. Shortly after the passing of Herod the Great, Judas the Galilean rose up, -in an armed insurrection… to overthrow the Herodian government… in the hopes of re-establishing the ancient ‘theocracy’ of David. Judas the Galilean was killed… but others took up his ‘religious, messianic cause’…. continuously… thousands were crucified in this messianic zeal… until the nation was utterly destroyed… in 70 c. e.
It crucially important to know or realize that no Jew (during the reign of Pontius Pilate) ever knew or saw or even heard of “Jesus Christ”. “Jesus Christ” is a direct result of Saul of Tarsus’ epiphany or apparition… some years after the crucifixion of ‘the descendant of David and Jewish messiah’.
Saul of Tarsus, you may be interested to know, is the namesake and descendant of the first king of the Jews (who, as mentioned earlier, everlastingly dishonored and shamed his family and fellow tribal members).
Saul of Tarus, -aka the Apostle and eventual Saint Paul, is no friend of mine.
Not only do I not agree with you re. “Jesus Christ” as well as that you interpret “[Jesus] Barabbas”… more importantly as it concerns, “we are a wretched and sinful people”…
Yes, ‘faith’ starts with me… not Saul of Tarsus… neither the ‘Christian’ church.
Roland, a reluctant iconoclast.
Oh dear, tired old liberal theology.