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Lent 2018: Jesus’ Last Week
The Exchange
March 18, 2018 (Lent 5)

Text: Matthew 27:15-23

Every Holy Week the ritual plays out in congregations around the world. A leader plays the role of Pilate. The congregation plays the crowd.

Leader: Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus?
Congregation: Barabbas
Leader: Which of the two do you want me to release for you?
Congregation: Barabbas
Leader: Then what shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Messiah
Congregation: Let him be crucified!
Leader: Why, what evil has he done?
Congregation: Let him be crucified!

Can you imagine this happening today? Its Christmas. At the courthouse. The local ministerial association has dragged in a popular itinerant preacher, accusing him of sedition.   A convicted terrorist awaits execution in a jail cell. The judge has the bailiff drag the two enemies of the state onto the courthouse steps, where a crowd awaits. “It’s Christmas,” the judge declares. “In honor of the occasion I’m going to release one of these two scoundrels. Which do you want?”

Scholars of Roman law find the Barabbas/Jesus exchange equally troubling. No evidence exists of such an exchange ever happening in the Roman Empire. Pontus Pilot disdained the Jewish leadership, disrespect of Jewish customs and hung troublemakers on crosses without hesitation. He didn’t let anyone go – especially to satisfy mobs during Jewish festivals. Yet all four gospels report a version of this exchange, making note of Pilot’s hesitancy to kill Jesus, documenting the release of the one Matthew calls Jesus Barabbas.

Jesus – the one who saves. Barabbas – son of the Father. Yes. Both prisoners have the same name. (If this were a Bible as literature class we’d take a major tangent here, but we’re not going that way this morning.) Both men have the same charge against them: insurrection. Luke tells us Barabbas was also convicted of murder.

History has preserved only one other account of Jesus’ death outside of the Bible. Josephus, a Roman historian, wrote a history of the Jews at about the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their gospels. Just prior to his report of Jesus’ death, Josephus describes a massive riot in Jerusalem. A group of young men, committed to martyrdom, tore a golden imperial eagle off the outer temple gates. Hundreds poured into the street in support of their cause. Dozens were killed. Some scholars think Barabbas helped instigate this riot. Others consider him a basic criminal, the leader of one of the many gangs who roamed both countryside and city streets combining revolutionary ideology, petty crime and general harassment of the occupying Romans.

Regardless Barabbas has committed the crimes for which Jesus was accused. He’s the violent criminal, the one with blood on his hands, the one who – upon his release – will likely take more blood, cause more insurrection, commit more crimes.

Josephus goes on from his tale of the riots to declare people just like Barabbas guilty for the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies some 35 years after the crowd freed the killer and condemned the innocent man. They were strong enough to ferment rebellion but not strong enough to hold onto power. Rome’s massive retaliation left the temple and the priesthood – the very things defended by the Jewish leadership – in shreds, never to be restored.

Yet there, on that Passover day in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders perceived Jesus to be the bigger threat, declared Jesus as the one who had to die.

Every Holy Week we reenact the exchange, the exchange of the innocent Jesus for the guilty one, the exchange of the one who shed others’ blood for the one who shed his own. As we say the words we ponder if, had we been there, we too would have sentenced Jesus to death.

We ponder whether we continue to put Jesus – or the values Jesus teaches – on a cross. For when we strip away attempts to spiritualize this story or to use it as a metaphor for what theologians call substitutionary atonement, we’re left with a basic truth – the powers and principalities – the Jewish leaders and the Roman government – feared Jesus’ meekness more than Barabbas’ violence. Barabbas killed people. Jesus blessed them. Healed them. Empowered them. Loved them.

They called Jesus rabbi, yet he had no certification, no degrees, no church, no temple, no strict rules to determine who was in and who was out. He simply declared God’s presence and embodied the love he taught. They called Jesus king, but he had neither army nor police force to enforce his authority. He simply selflessly cared for those around him, and they followed. In a world governed by those who broker power, Jesus lacked both titles and positions. In a world governed by those who can buy or be brought, Jesus gave what little was in his purse to the poor and could not be owned. In a world governed by those who control the means of violence, Jesus counseled peace.

Those with power could live with Barabbas. He was one of them. Jesus had to be stopped.

We still live in a world governed by power, by wealth, by greed, by violence. We bow to the same idols as those who stood outside Pilot’s house two millennia ago. Whom would we fear? Which Jesus would we put on a cross?