In their respective narratives of our Lord’s Passion, all four Gospels mention the crowd’s election of Barabbas over Jesus. That choice comes at the end of Pontius Pilate’s half-hearted attempt to free Christ. It is the moment of the crowd’s definitive rejection of Christ and embrace of evil.
The whole account captures human sinfulness in just a few verses. Pilate puts before the crowd first “Jesus Barabbas” (Mt 27:17) – that is, “Jesus, son of the father” – and then Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father. The crowd must choose either the real Son of the Father or His counterfeit, the true Sonship or the false. Its choice of the counterfeit and false summarizes our sinfulness.
In the liturgies for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the congregation cries out to free Barabbas. In playing that role in the drama, the People of God are also making a confession of sorts. Because we have indeed chosen Barabbas. We have preferred the false son of the father to the Son of God. As the Israelites once “exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bull” (Ps 106:20), so we have opted for a pseudo-sonship in place of “the glory to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18) We’ve elected to be children in the spirit of Barabbas, not of Christ.
Who is it that we’ve chosen? Barabbas is variously described as a rebel, a robber, and a murderer. These indictments are not mutually exclusive. Each one sheds light on a dimension of our sinfulness. They also follow neatly one after another. First, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are rebels who must lay down our arms.” Our insistence on absolute autonomy, to be a law unto ourselves – to be like God (Gen 3:5) – cannot exist within God’s order. It is open rebellion.
We are likewise robbers. We have arrogated God’s gifts and glory to ourselves. All that we are and have is a gift from God meant to be given. But we have kept these things as our own possessions, for our own purposes and glory. We even boast as if they are our own accomplishments.
All of this makes us murderers as well. God is the final rebuke and stop to our rebellion and theft. We cannot continue if He is in the picture. To preserve our autonomy and glory, we must be done with Him. The modern world is this truth writ large. But each of us lives it personally.
The choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ really comes down to the choice between self-preservation and self-gift. It is the fundamental choice that our Lord articulates repeatedly and that He returns to shortly before His Passion: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25; cf. Mt 16:25; Lk 17:33)
Barabbas is the image of the man who loves his life and seeks to preserve it at all costs. Rebellion, robbery, and murder are just different ways he’s sought to keep his petty little kingdom secure. On the other hand, our Lord – beaten, scourged, and crowned with thorns – is the man who hates His life in this world. He has lost everything: power, possessions, health, dignity, friends, etc. Yet He knows that this loss is not the end but the beginning – the sowing of a seed.
We have followed Barabbas in embracing this disordered self-preservation. We could call it pride, but that word in our culture typically implies a proper self-assertion and demand for recognition. Although it can be those things, more often than not our pride – that preservation of our lives, comfort, and reputation above all else – is not high and strong, but peevish and weak. In the interest of self-preservation, the Apostles run away and abandon our Lord. To preserve his life, Peter flinches at the questions of a servant girl and denies Christ. To preserve his trivial reign, Pilate hands Christ over to be crucified.
This inordinate fear of losing our autonomy, this grasping to preserve our lives, is the taproot of all sin. We lash out in anger because we sense a threat to our reputation and ego. We greedily snatch up more and more things to protect ourselves, to secure our borders. We slouch into sloth to avoid God and preserve our time as ours. And so on. Every sin has this characteristic of self-preservation.
Jesus Christ is the true Son of the Father. His self-emptying is both the means of our redemption and the pattern to live out our sonship: “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. . .becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8) The Christian’s continuing conversion requires the repeated rejection of Barabbas and embrace of our Lord. Holy Week is the time to deepen that conversion, to rededicate ourselves to the true Son.
“Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” (Mt 27:17) In the past we have cried out for Barabbas, so that we too could live that false sonship. Now, we repent and cry out for Christ, that we may be freed to follow the true Son of the Father and walk in His path of self-giving.
*Image: Not This Man but Barabbas by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1520 [Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries, UK]