As part of the celebration around Jewish Passover each year, one prisoner was granted amnesty each year. During the Roman trial of Our Lord, Pilate in recognition of that tradition, put forward two candidates for the Passover Amnesty—Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth. While Barabbas was a relatively obscure revolutionary in his day, there is perhaps no “minor” character in all the Gospels that plays a more pivotal role than he. He is also significant because he incarnates some of the traps that Christians can fall into when it comes to Our Lord.
The Political Trap
The first trap is to view everything through a political filter. Pontius Pilate was like many Americans in our own day, only able to see through a political lens. Pope Benedict XVI points out in his book on Holy Week that Barabbas was an infamous rebel whom Pontius Pilate feared. Once Pilate realized that Jesus was not only innocent, but was also politically harmless, he sought a political solution to the problem. He thought the trial could be ended and he could still have favor with the Jews by offering Jesus as a candidate for the Passover amnesty. He assumed that the people would choose the innocent Jesus rather than the dangerous Barabbas. This is why we see him repeatedly lobbying for Jesus’ innocence. The problem with this of course was once Our Lord was put forward as a candidate for amnesty, guilt was assumed and Our Lord already condemned.
Frank Sheed reported that Pilate already had three major conflicts with the Jews prior to the incident with Jesus. Two of these had been settled within Judea itself, with Pilate winning one and having to yield to the Jews in the other. The third conflict had been sent to the Emperor Tiberius himself. Pilate sought to avoid an appeal to Caesar at all costs. His patron in Rome, Sejanus, had recently been executed in Rome. That is why he sought two loopholes in order to avoid making a decision; sending Jesus to Herod the Tetrarch and by making an appeal to the crowd. When these both fail, he chooses the politically expedient solution without any regard to innocence and truth—“I am personally opposed, but…”
Freedom is first and foremost a theological reality, that is “an exceptional sign of the divine image in man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17) and not a political one. Our Lord may have been in chains, but “no one takes My life, I lay it down of my own accord.” He was the freest man who ever walked the face of the earth. Barabbas may have shed his chains and Pilate may have thought himself master of all in Jerusalem but both were chained to the whim of the crowd. They both remind us that we are only truly free in one sense—we are always free to do that which is good. But each time we run with the herd, that capacity within us shrinks to the point where we forget we have it. Eventually we wonder “what is Truth?” Sooner or later we eventually run out of room to compromise and must either unconditionally surrender our freedom or declare “non possumus.”
The Theological Trap
The second trap is theological in character. The name Barabbas literally means “Son of the Father.” Matthew in his Gospel calls him a “notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16), which is probably an indication that he was a leader of a political uprising. In this way, the people are presented with two very different messianic figures, both “Sons of the Father”, who are accused of the same offense—rebellion against Roman rule. It is clear which one Pilate prefers. He prefers the nonviolent one whose “kingdom is not of this world” rather than the violent Barabbas. The crowd and the Jewish authorities however, want a different kind of Messiah. They do not want one that works through love and truth but instead one who promises political power based upon violent revolt. They do not want the one who picks up His cross, but the one who would crucify.
John refers to Barabbas as a “robber.” This term (lēstēs in Greek) was often a term used to describe those who stirred up rebellion and is the same term that Jesus uses to contrast the behavior of the Good Shepherd. It is clear that John has in mind a concrete example of the people choosing a false shepherd in choosing Barabbas.
That we should not set up for ourselves false shepherds seems obvious but there is a subtle way that we do this that is not always easy to catch. I once went to a book signing where the author who writes historical fiction spoke about the Founding Fathers. She talked about how she loved Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin growing up until she found out they owned slaves and grew to completely loathe them. She then went on to say how she now thought Alexander Hamilton was the greatest of all the Founding Fathers because of his abolitionism. I was struck how she was unwilling to overlook Jefferson and Franklin’s moral failings and see the good that they did, but overlooked Hamilton’s many moral failings.
The point is not that support of slavery is a minor or major moral failing, but that there is a tendency to demonize or canonize a person based on how their position gibes with our own (or usually the politically correct one). Jefferson and Franklin had serious moral failings, support of slavery among them, but they also had good ones too, the fruit of which we are still drawing today. Hamilton’s character was such that he saw slavery as the evil that it is, but his other moral failings (including great pride leading directly to his death) should render us slow to praise him as the greatest of the American Founders. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy combined to helpd the civil rights cause more than any two men in US history, but both were serial adulterers. The point is that we already have a Messiah, and none of those men are Him. The minute we try to set up fallen men as the Messiah, we feel we must defend them and justify any flaws. There will always be a gravity towards crowning the latest hero as the Messiah. However when Christ remains the Messiah, we can see how these men were instrumental (or not) in bringing other men into His Kingdom. Only there does true greatness lay.
The Peace Trap
Finally, Barabbas reminds us that peace only comes where there is justice. Pilate knew very well that justice demanded that Jesus be released and that Barabbas remain imprisoned. But he feared an uprising, a loss of peace. In the end, it was a band aid as Jerusalem would eventually be destroyed. Barabbas reminds us that we cannot peace by making a lie into a system (Jeremiah 6:14).
Peace, St. Thomas says, is the tranquility of order. This means peace can only come about when our lives and our society are properly ordered. This is not about “social justice” of which there will be none until we have this proper ordering. First and foremost it means giving God His due. Any society that does not put God first is absolutely doomed to fail. Do we really believe this? Rather than trying to blame the secularists for this, why don’t we as Catholics take responsibility for this and stop trying to smuggle Catholicism into society. We are mostly cowards worrying about hurt feelings rather than burning souls (our own included—“woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”).
Barabbas or Jesus, which will you choose?