When I was a child, there were incidents in the Passion narrative that didn’t make sense to my young mind. In particular, why the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus – why on earth would they do that? As I grew up and gradually became spiritually and historically/politically more aware, it became much clearer, but also revealed that there are times when our view of God can sometimes be distorted for reasons similar to those of the clamouring crowd.
What can we learn about Barabbas from the Gospels? John 18: 40 simply states: “Now Barabbas was a bandit.” Matthew 27: 16 is similarly succinct: “At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas.” A bandit, a notorious prisoner – but what had he done? We have to turn to Mark and Luke for more detailed information. Mark 15: 7 makes clear the reason for his imprisonment: “Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder in the insurrection.” Luke 23: 19 similarly informs “This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.” Insurrection and murder – now we are building up a clearer picture of the man Barabbas.
The Jews were a people under Roman occupation, and evidently there were pockets of resistance and rebellion which had resulted in serious violence. It’s easy to imagine that Barabbas had become something of a cult figure, a ruthless urban guerrilla, if you like, and a focus for support against Roman subjugation. But had there not been promised a Messiah who would free the Jewish people and, more to the point, had not Jesus claimed to be the Messiah? Certainly, he had performed miracles; healing the sick, feeding the five thousand, stilling a raging storm. He had taught of a new way of life, but love your enemies – how was that going to help gain freedom from the Roman oppressors? Barabbas was a man of action; it is not difficult to understand how the chief priests and elders managed to stir up the crowd and persuade them to demand his release. Barabbas was clearly more the sort of character they needed to fight for their freedom. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t appear to be up to the job – not the man they wanted him to be!
Aren’t there moments, when our prayers don’t seem to be being answered, when events such as the Covid-19 pandemic are becoming disturbingly threatening and out of our control, that in our desperation we ask ourselves why isn’t God as we want him to be? Like the crowd who shouted for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus, we want some action! Doesn’t God love us, doesn’t he want to protect us from the horrors that at times confront us?
But then we realise that God himself has been in this very same situation – the cry of Jesus, God’s own Son, on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” rings in our ears. All that the world could throw at humankind for all of time was endured by God in the person of Jesus in that single, terrifying, concentrated moment. We realise also it is the resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter morning that reveals God’s love and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, life over death, not in terms of the temporal, but of the eternal. God does love and care for us, and always will, even if in our darkest moments we can sometimes doubt it.