Choosing Barabbas — The Christian Day of Atonement

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At the trial of Jesus, according to each Gospel, Pilate gives the assembled crowd a choice: they could choose to free Jesus of Nazareth or they could choose Jesus Barabbas. But why would the Gospel-writers include this detail?

Remember that the first Christians were Jewish. As they wrote about the events of Jesus’ death (writing after the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead), they reflected on their understanding of the death of Jesus as God’s Anointed One in light of the practices and rituals within the Jewish religion and in light of the Jewish Scriptures.

One of the important Jewish holidays is Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. On this day, the High Priest offers sacrifices on behalf of the entire people of Israel.

The community of Israel shall give Aaron two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall offer a bull as a sacrifice to take away his own sins and those of his family. Then he shall take the two goats to the entrance of the Tent of the Lord’s presence. There he shall draw lots, using two stones, one marked “for the Lord” and the other “for Azazel.” Aaron shall sacrifice the goat chosen by lot for the Lord and offer it as a sin offering. The goat chosen for Azazel shall be presented alive to the Lord and sent off into the desert to Azazel, in order to take away the sins of the people. (Leviticus 16:5-10)

Early Christians clearly saw a parallel in this event. The day we call Good Friday is the Christian version of the Day of Atonement and the two men named Jesus stand in for the two goats to be sacrificed.

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest chooses the goats to be sacrificed – one is chosen to be a sacrifice to God, the other is chosen to be a sacrifice to sin. A sacrifice to God has to be perfect – the cultic language of the time says that sacrifice is to be “spotless” or “blameless.” It is to have no defect at all.

By now someone is thinking, “That applies to Jesus, but not to Barabbas. Jesus may have been ‘spotless,’ but Barabbas is described as ‘Notorious.’ He is said to have participated in, or started, a riot in which many people were killed. He is said to be a ‘robber’ or a ‘bandit.’ How could he represent a sin offering which must also be spotless?”

The answer is that the point of the story is that there are two kinds of spotlessness being offered. There is spotless in the eyes of God and there is spotless in the eyes of people. Regardless of all the terms used for Barabbas, he was a revolutionary. This makes sense of the other descriptions as well. He was not just a revolutionary, he was a well-known revolutionary. He began uprisings against the Romans and people often were killed in the process. He was a bandit because revolutionaries are forced to live outside the law and outside the society they are overthrowing. He had to survive by his group of followers raiding and robbing Roman supply lines, traveling merchants, and anyone who could provide him and his men with what they needed to keep fighting the Romans in the effort to liberate Judea from Roman occupation.

I know someone will find this comparison offensive (so be it), but think George Washington. At least, think of George Washington from the point of view of the British at the time of the American Revolution. George Washington was, from the British and loyalist point of view, notorious, a robber, a criminal, someone who got people killed. Yet, to those fighting with George Washington, he was a Patriot. If the American Revolution would have failed, we would all be talking about George Washington as a criminal who was killed by the British government for leading an insurrection against the lawful government. But the American colonist who rebelled won, so instead we call George Washington a “hero,” and “the Father of our country,” along with “Patriot.”

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Barabbas never led a successful revolution, so he remains a bandit. But if he won, he would have been a hero. But regardless, at the time, many people would have considered Barabbas a Patriot, doing what was necessary in an ongoing struggle against Roman Occupation and oppression.

All this is to say, from the point of view of God, or from the point of view of Christianity, or from the point of view of religion and morality, Barabbas is far from spotless. Yet, from the point of view of the oppressed and those living under foreign occupation, Barabbas was perfect – and if he somehow were freed, it would resurrect the hope that he will soon liberate the country from the Romans.

So the High Priest sends Jesus to Pilate to be sacrificed. Pilate tries to find a way to get around killing Jesus. This is not because Pilate was a nice guy, or honorable, or noble. Pilate was as mean as they come. But as mean and abusive as Pilate was, he was a Roman, and he venerated Roman law and procedure, and according to Roman law and procedure, Jesus of Nazareth had done nothing wrong – at least nothing to deserve the death penalty.

So the people are given a choice: Jesus of Nazareth, called the Anointed One, or Jesus Barabbas, the revolutionary. Now on a day in which the Passover was beginning —THE PASSOVER! Passover is the holiday that commemorates the Liberation of the Hebrew people from the Egyptians. So the Jewish people who are hoping and praying for independence and liberation from the Romans are given the choice of Jesus the religious teacher, or Jesus the revolutionary. Both are trouble-makers in the eyes of the authorities, but one at least is making trouble that is working toward an independent Judea and the other is just going around feeding people and healing people – and doing it on the Sabbath! It was no contest!

But it was not just the people choosing. The priests were responsible for helping them make their choice. So, just as on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest selected the sacrifice, and then determined which was to be sacrificed to God and which was to be released into the wilderness, so too on that first Good Friday, the High Priest was responsible for arranging the sacrifice of one Jesus .and releasing the other Jesus out into the wilderness. There are two ideas of the Christ up for grabs: the idea of Christ represented by Jesus of Nazareth – God’s choice for Christ – or the idea of Christ represented by Barabbas – the human choice for Christ.

The priest and the people chose their Christ and sacrificed the Christ that did not suit their purpose. They chose the Christ of war, violence, murder, destruction, hate, fear – the Christ of the world; and by choosing that one Christ, they were choosing to sacrifice the other. And because of that choice, Barabbas becomes the scapegoat who carries the sins of the people out into the wilderness to be slaughtered later. Barabbas will be sacrificed by sin – his sin and the sins of the people; Jesus will be sacrificed for sin – the sins of others.

Human beings, Jew and Gentile, chose to sacrifice love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and peace because deep down those things are offensive to us – we like them as ideals but when push comes to shove, we would rather shove than forgive. And even those of us who shed tears as we meditate on these events and read the Scriptures still often find ourselves in our day to day affairs choosing to follow the way of Barabbas instead of the way of Jesus.

So when Pilate asked the crowd, “Who is it that you want me to set free for you?” the crowd shouted, “Barabbas!”

This is the Day of Atonement! We no longer have to send goats out into the wilderness and sprinkle blood on the people. Christ has perfectly embodied that sacrifice. The crowd tells Pilate, let the guilt of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ be on their heads and on the heads of their children. That is not an excuse to hate Jews for crucifying Jesus. WE are the children of that crowd! The guilt is passed down to us. That may sound unfair, but think how quick you are to get angry, to be selfish, to use force, to try to force situations rather than wait for God to handle it. Look at the world and how it operates – we are the crowd and we still love a Barabbas whenever he appears.

The first sermon in Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus preaches is “Repent!” Change the way you understand the world and behave differently because the Kingdom of God is at hand. We must change our thinking about what is “normal” and acceptable in and for the world and behave differently. We must choose the way of love, peace, forgiveness, generosity, justice, and mercy, or else we are choosing against Jesus Christ and for Barabbas, making ourselves worse than that crowd – they chose Barabbas only once; we choose him over and over again while claiming to be loyal to Jesus. And we are being loyal to Jesus, just not the Jesus who is the Christ, not the Jesus who represents the way of God, but the Jesus who represents the way of the world.

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