Give Us Barabbas

Give us Barabbas!

The familiar scene unfolds in our minds at least once a year: Jesus and Barabbas stand before the crowd in the praetorium. Barabbas the criminal is grunting about, egging on the crowd to cheer for him. He is nauseating in mannerism and appearance, and harder to look upon than even the bruised, scourged, bleeding Christ. As Satan weaves among the crowd, he urges all to chant, “Give us Barabbas!” They comply, but couldn’t really care less about the grotesque man. Ultimately, the cries have nothing to do with Barabbas, but everything to do with crucifying the man beside him, the one in whom Pilate found no fault.

Any given scripture scholar may prove me completely wrong in an instant, but perhaps there was something in the hearts of those in the crowd that really did want Barabbas. Perhaps he wasn’t the ugliest of figures, with the most monstrous characteristics, or the sloppiest of dispositions. Maybe his mission was somewhat appealing to people, so that in shouting for Barabbas, they weren’t just trying to crucify Jesus as the priests were, but actually wanted him. It’s as if they were shouting, “Give us back Barabbas!”

It’s worth remembering that early manuscripts of the Gospels as well as older translations of the Bible available today give the criminal’s name in full: Jesus Barabbas. The name ‘Barabbas’ means ‘son of the father’ (bar-abba). Further reflection may expose more similarities between Jesus and Barabbas in their missions, even if ultimately their projects are two lines that never cross, that follow different means to very different ends.

The real criminal is said to be “notorious,” one who may have tried to lead some sort of grand insurrection to liberate his countrymen from Roman rule. He may have seen himself as a messianic figure, a political one (and thus the more common notion of Messiah in his time). He would be the one who would bring real peace to the Israelites, not in the form of the Pax Romana, but one that freed Israel from alien force completely.

Jesus the Nazarene, called the Christ, Son of The Father, is then juxtaposed with Jesus Barabbas, the insurgent, son of the father. One claims an unseen kingdom not of this world, the other promises a physical kingdom here and now, as was expected. One was captured in a garden with followers that fled, the other fought for his cause before being overpowered by the same forces that were occupying their land.

The former demands self-denial, love for enemies, holding off personal vengeance, and care for the at times thankless marginalized. He praises the slave, the meek, the despised, the persecuted, the mournful, and the suffering. His way is narrow, and few there are that find it.

The latter is an immediately recognizable response to oppression. His followers need not concern themselves with authority, trials, objective formalisms, dogma, seeking and being obedient to one truth, or conformity with another’s standards. His way is all encompassing, all welcoming, tolerant, liberating, easy; and all who want freedom ought to follow it.

Jesus Christ’s kingdom is taken by violence, but violence done to inordinate passions and choices done in our fallen human nature. Jesus Barabbas’s kingdom is taken by violence that is all too familiar and intuitive. The former violence hurts before it heals, the latter instantly leads directly to worldly gain.

Is there any difficulty, then, in understanding why the crowd would want Barabbas?

Would it be hard for us to say on any given day who we might shout for?

Image: James Tissot, Barabbas

You May Also Enjoy:

Lenten Peace Lent is a time to attain peace of heart, not to lose it. Yet it is a common experience for people to make big Lenten resolutions, fail to keep them, and give in to discouragement. We are sinners, and most of us provide daily evidence of this fact, but this is no reason to lose our interior peace. As Jacques Philippe has succinctly put it, “all the reasons that cause us to lose our sense of peace are bad reasons,” and that includes our own sinfuln...
The Purple Haze of Lent Jimi Hendrix probably didn’t have Lent in mind when he wrote “Purple Haze.” But Lent can feel like a “purple haze, all around,” and not just because of the vestments. In the confusing mix of emotions, one might echo Hendrix, “Am I happy or in misery?” While Lent is a time of penance, I cannot help but find it a joyful season. That might seem paradoxical. What is joyful about meatless Fridays, cold showers, or somber vestments? you may ask. It’...
Something Reliable Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in a series commenting on the first words of Christ as presented in the Gospels. The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel. (Mk 1:14) Believe in the Gospel. With this sentence, Jesus directs our attention away from a physical, earthly kingdom. Instead, Jesus establishes a new location where we can build our lives. His Good News is the only truly durable place ...
Flash of Fire in the Fog Editor’s note: This is the seventh post in a series commenting on the first words of Christ as presented in the Gospels. What do you seek? … Come and see. (Jn 1:38-39) At the very core of our being, there is a longing, an aching desire for happiness. We strive to fill this day after day with little pleasures and big dreams, but in the process, we too often get bogged down with the details. How can I think about pursuing eternal happiness when I...
Br. John Thomas Fisher, O.P.

Written by:

Br. John Thomas Fisher grew up in Easley, SC. After becoming a Catholic ​in high school, he studied philosophy and French at the University of South Carolina. Upon graduating, he worked at a bookstore and church doing maintenance for a year before entering the Order in 2013. Brother John Thomas first became acquainted with the Dominicans during a trip in college to Rome. On