My last post I considered how Western Christianity denigrated Barabbas by taking Barabbas’ ethnicity out of the equation as well as ignoring the socio-political context. This was all compounded by a tradition of sloppy exegesis which distorted the clear depiction of an insurrectionist into a mindless serial killer.
However, I would like to consider why Barabbas is important in the Jesus story. More often than not, Barabbas is the poster child and mascot for those who choose to impose penal substitutionary atonement on every passage, regardless of the biblical context. Why not, Barabbas deserved his crime and Jesus took his place, right? Well, yes and no.
The reality is that Barabbas’ presence in the story is not there primarily to teach us that Jesus is our substitute. Instead, Barabbas is supposed to help us consider Jesus’ significance and mission. Remember that Jesus was Jewish just like Barabbas, and both were born into oppressed bodies under the Roman Empire. Barabbas as noted in my last post was a well known revolutionist who attempted to violently overthrow his occupiers. However, Jesus is actually accused of participating in similar activities when before the Roman authorities. Consider these passages…
Luke 23:2 “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”
Luke 23:5 “But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”
In fact, in Matthew 26:55 Jesus himself poses a rhetorical question as he is about to be arrested. He asks “Am I leading a rebellion?” However, the answer is not clear cut. In some ways he is, just not a violent one like the kind Barabbas leads. However his proclamations of a new Kingdom being ushered in certainly imply a certain type of overthrow.
So again we have Barabbas and we have Jesus. In many ways you could say that they are both revolutionaries, just varying in kind. Matthew 27:15-27 goes a bit further and clues us in on Barabbas’ importance in the Jesus story. Barabbas’ name is Jesus Barabbas. Here in Matthew we see that there is a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Jesus itself means “the Lord Saves”. So the choice for the people comes down what type of revolution they want and who they believe God is going to use to bring them true liberation. They can try to achieve freedom using the same tools that currently oppress them (violence and manipulation) or Jesus’ methods (sacrifice and service).
Unfortunately they choose Barabbas, thinking that the way of force, violence, and oppression will some how turn into freedom and peace (often promised imperial deceptions). Yet we all have a choice to make, who will you follow Jesus Barabbas the Violent One or Jesus the Crucified One. Do you expect the violent tools of the empire to suddenly create a new world of peace and justice? Or are you willing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, as he flips this world upside-down? How does this impact our role as Christians in America, (the modern Roman Empire in the world)?