Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Other Jesus

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon, Seminarian
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014

Now the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children.” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. – Matthew 27:20-25

Portrait of Barabbas
by James Tissot (1836–1902)
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
Jesus Barabbas. Who was this other Jesus, this Jesus Barabbas? He appears in all four gospels, and he is called alternately a bandit, an insurrectionist, and a murderer. He was in prison for an earlier revolt in Jerusalem, during which time he had killed Romans. Perhaps Barabbas was a charismatic leader of the Zealots, the faction of Jews who advocated for the violent overthrow of Roman rule in Judea. If there had been freedom of expression in that culture, we might imagine young people marching around the city with signs reading, “Free Barabbas.” I imagine that Barabbas was charismatic, tough, and not afraid of making hard decisions … just our kind of leader. “We need Barabbas!” cried the crowds. “Give him to us!”

So Barabbas sat in prison, knowing that all his efforts had failed. And then, all of a sudden, he was free. He stumbled, blinking, into the light, the rough hands of the Roman soldiers shoving him towards the exit. They mumbled, “Get out, you worthless scum. That fool Jesus of Nazareth is going to the cross instead of you! But if you try anything, you’ll really get it next time.”

And so Barabbas was saved. Glory of glories! Jesus of Nazareth stood as a substitute, the atoning sacrifice for Barabbas. Barabbas was saved … literally. Jesus died for Barabbas’s sins … literally. The crowd wanted their beloved Barabbas back, and they got him. No doubt they expected Barabbas to get back to organizing the cause.

The world hasn’t changed much, has it? We know how this story goes. If only one man can be spared, give us the one whose methods we understand. Give us strength and power. Give us military might. These Romans only understand war, so we must rise to the challenge. We love to cling to our conviction that we must always fight fire with fire.

For us, Barabbas can represent the default ways of our own culture. When we are attacked, we must retaliate. If we don’t know who attacked us, we’ll attack people who look like them. We must reduce our enemies to rubble. We must make the world conform to our expectations right now, for fear that there will never be any other time or any other way to get what we want. What’s more, we really believe that our violence will prevent future violence. And if there are unintended side effects, well, you have to break a few eggs, right? Sure, we’ll take that responsibility. So crucify this man, with his nonsense about turning the other cheek! Crucify this fool who prays for his enemies! We can live with his blood. His blood be on us … and on our children.

Meanwhile, Jesus Barabbas walked free. How did he feel about this man, this other Jesus, this innocent man whom he never met? Did Barabbas rejoice at his own salvation? Did his previous acts of murder look different to him in the blinding light outside the prison cell? And did he watch as the soldiers led this other man, this other Jesus, towards the cross?

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