“They cried out again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’” – John 18:40a
The crowds have gathered and before them stand three men. One is Pilate, the procurator of this neck of the Roman woods. On his left is Barabbas, a general purpose ne’er-do-well. Scripture describes him variously as a thief, a murderer, and an insurrectionist; suffice it to say you don’t want him coming over for dinner. On his right is Jesus, a carpenter turned traveling rabbi. The choice is given, who should be released? At once the crowds cry out, “we choose Barabbas!” When asked what they want done with Jesus they chant again and again and again “Crucify him…Crucify him…Crucify him…”
This scene is often discussed to show the fickleness of the crowd; the dangers of a mob mentality. On Sunday Jesus entered triumphantly into the city; the crowds welcomed him with the praise fill Hosanna’s. Now, not even a week has gone by and those same crowds are chanting a hate-filled crucify. Hosanna is replaced by crucify; praise becomes hate…it’s funny how it works isn’t it?
All of this is true enough, yet in the midst of this Holy Week scene, perhaps with a little grin on his face as the crowds cheer his name stands the figure of Barabbas. He’s pictured as one of the Holy Week bad guys. There’s Judas, and Pilate, and the Sanhedrin, and Barabbas. He stands as a completely undeserving beneficiary of the mob mentality before the presence of Jesus. Again, all this is true enough…but then there’s a great deal that Barabbas can teach us about the grace that flows to us from this man Jesus.
Frederick Buechner once observed that while the crowds chose Barabbas over Jesus, given the same choice Jesus would have chosen Barabbas over himself too. It’s one of those moments of pause isn’t it? Here stands a man who is as rotten to the core as he can be, Barabbas. He stands guilty indeed of death, even death on a cross. But Jesus, Jesus goes to the cross in the place of Barabbas. He doesn’t deserve this gift but it’s his none the less. It’s his not simply because the crowd chanted in praise filled tones the name of a wretched sinner over the name of Jesus; the gift is his because Jesus chooses a man like Barabbas to save.
Buechner goes on to observe that this whole scene shows us just what a savior truly does and, just how badly we need that savior named Jesus. It is he that chooses time and again to stand in the place of the horribly wretched, the decently awful, and the spectacularly sinful; from folks like me and you to those like Barabbas.