On Palm Sunday, churches around the world will celebrate that fateful moment when Jesus rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem. This event is ironically dubbed the “triumphant entry.” An enthusiastic crowd certainly cheered him on that day, but another crowd would angrily jeer at him only a few days later.
It’s that second crowd that concerns me.
The occasion was a sort of clemency hearing. According to our sources, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, made a show each year at the Passover of releasing one prisoner as a goodwill gesture. This particular year he found himself with two candidates – Jesus and a man named Barabbas.
The Gospel of Mark describes Barabbas as a “rebel” who was in prison for committing murder during some sort of political uprising. Given the climate in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, we can be pretty sure the uprising was against Rome, and the murdered victim a Roman soldier. In other words, Barabbas was a freedom fighter.
Jesus, of course, was a holy man. He was variously called teacher, prophet and, of course, Messiah by those who knew him best. None of these designations is particularly dangerous or subversive, at least in the violent sense. In fact, according to the Gospels, after Pilate interrogated Jesus, he reached the conclusion that Jesus was not a threat to Rome at all. Pilate was ready to grant him clemency, but that was up to the crowd.
The differences between the two men could not have been more glaring. Barabbas the freedom fighter was committed to waging war against Roman oppression with direct violent action. His creed was likely “hate your enemies and use any means available to defeat them.”
Jesus, on the other hand, was a man of peace. His approach to Roman oppression included turning the other cheek and going the second mile. Later, when Roman soldiers were crucifying him, Jesus asked God to forgive them – his creed being “love your enemy.”
When Pilate called for a decision, religious leaders stirred the crowd in favor of Barabbas, though I doubt it was a hard sell. Rome was a cruel taskmaster. The crowd would have been naturally drawn to someone who was willing to strike a blow against their oppressors. And let’s be honest, turning the other cheek has never been very popular. So they chose Barabbas. Jesus, of course, the innocent one, was led away to be crucified.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong choice. Barabbas and others like him eventually led Israel into one provocation too many. Roman legions eventually took Jerusalem down stone by stone. Too bad the crowd had not believed Jesus when he said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
Not that any of us would have done anything differently. In fact there have been a few times in history when the same sort of choice has presented itself to us. We have found ourselves facing some crisis that forced us to choose either a Barabbas-like solution or the Jesus option. So far, we have not fared any better than that fateful Good Friday crowd. We keep choosing violence over peace, death over life, and hate over love.
And like it was for the Good Friday crowd, every time we choose Barabbas, some innocent soul somewhere ends up on a cross.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).