Pontius Pilate knew he had no real reason to have Jesus killed. But the mob outside, urged on by their religious leaders, were clamoring for his blood. The Roman governor thought he saw a way out.
It was his custom at that time of year to release a prisoner as a goodwill gesture. He had planned to offer Barabbas, a robber and rabble-rouser. But now he could offer Jesus instead. Just a few days before, Jesus had been escorted into the city by an adoring crowd. Surely some of them were in that mob outside. Surely they would ask for him to be set free.
But they didn’t. Urged on by Jesus’ enemies, the mob called for Barabbas.
“What do I do with Jesus then?” asked the governor.
“Crucify him!” yelled the mob.
“But why? What has he done?” protested Pilate. But the mob was beyond reason.
“Crucify him! CRUCIFY HIM!”
So Jesus was led away to be flogged and crucified.
What would we have done if we were in that crowd on the night Jesus was arrested? What would you have done if you had been in that crowd? Would you have joined in the clamor for Jesus to be killed?
“Certainly not!” you say?
Don’t be so sure.
The people who chose Barabbas lived in an angry, confused, cruel and frustrated world. They had learned to survive in it, going with the flow without fully endorsing its worst aspects. Most of them would probably not have described themselves as “good people,” but surely they were good enough.
Jesus was a likeable fellow. He was kind, fun to be around and generous. He exposed hypocritical public figures. He did fascinating miracles and gave great sermons. No wonder people liked to follow him around. You never knew what was going to happen next, but you knew it would be exciting.
Jesus said he represented a kingdom “not of this world,” where love, forgiveness and peace are the way of life. He said the future belonged to the poor, the powerless and the disenfranchised. But the future is a long way off, and right now, the poor were still poor and powerless and disenfranchised.
He spoke often of repentance and forgiveness — which was fine, but divine forgiveness didn’t pay the tax man and didn’t keep hypocritical public figures from taking your property and killing your children.
Jesus had a disconcerting way of including “good-enough” people among the sinners. He seemed to expect them to make changes in how they lived, too. “Why do you call me Lord, and don’t do what I tell you?” he’d ask.
Jesus threatened the status quo at every level. He still does, and we don’t like that, especially if we are comfortable. When we are confronted with the reality of Jesus, many of us good-enough people would prefer to do like Pilate, and wash our hands of him. We have nothing against him personally, but we don’t like to be faced with the truth about our own greed, selfishness, double standards and hypocrisy. Save sinners by all means, but not in my backyard!
So Jesus was brutally put to death with the cries of ordinary people ringing in his ears. Three days later, he was resurrected. It was not just the triumph of one man over his own death. It is God’s triumph over all sin and death — once and for all. Christians understand this, and we love, honor, praise and worship the one whose sacrifice has opened the way to our eternal life.
At least, we like to think we do. But let’s be honest with ourselves. What would we have done if we had been in that crowd on the night Jesus was arrested?
We may not have liked Barabbas, but we understood him. He was of our world. We would not have wanted him as a next-door neighbor, but providing he posed no threat to us personally, we could let him live.
But that other fellow? He offered us promises we could not see, and he confronted us where it hurt most, invading our innermost being, challenging us to share, to serve, to be humble, to be honest, to put God first, to love others as much as we love ourselves and to forgive those who wrong us.
That is all very well in theory, and makes for wonderful prayers and praise songs. But in reality, that is not the way we do things down here. Better to play it safe with the devil you do know.
Are you sure you would not have chosen Barabbas?