In our reading the Passion Gospel this morning, we met a character who is very often overlooked. With the glory of the Triumphal Entry as well as the majesty of the Passion Gospel, it is easy to see how such a figure could be over looked, but, as is the case with the Gospels, minor figures and brief sayings often have tremendous significance. Most of us have heard of the criminal Barabbas, but very few have ever heard a teaching focused on him, much less a sermon on him. Yet in the story of this minor criminal, this violent thug bandit, we see a powerful comparison and a life-altering decision.
In our Gospel this morning we read,
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy. … But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” … Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified. (St. Matthew 27:15-18, 20-21, 26)
The Barabbas passage occurs, in some form or another, in all four of the canonical Gospels. In other accounts we hear that he was an acknowledged murderer, that he had led an insurrection in rebellion against the Roman authorities, and, quite coincidentally, that his name was also Jesus.
This is not likely so strange as it sounds. Jesus is an English version of the Greek name Yeshua, which is in turn a version of the Hebrew name Joshua. Joshua was one of the great heroes of ancient Judaism. He was one of the two faithful spies who returned with a good report from the Holy Land and he was Moses’ chosen successor. The name was quite common among Hebrew boys, maybe not quite so common as Mary was among Hebrew girls, but it was a common name. It would not be completely shocking to have two prisoners with that same name show up in the same prison. Of course, how this other Jesus is known does make things more interesting.
Jesus Barabbas, is more properly rendered “Jesus Bar-Abbas,” which means, “Jesus, the son of Abbas.” We see similar descriptive names (called patronyms) in the case of Peter (Simon Bar-Jonah) and James and John (Bar-Zebedee). What makes this Jesus Bar-Abbas so significant is the meaning of his father’s name. Three times in Scripture we see that the word “abba” is an Aramaic word for “father.” (St. Mark 13:46; Romans 8:15; and Galatians 4:6). So rendering out Barabbas’ name completely, we would find that Barabbas would have been known as “Jesus, the son of the father.” Now that makes things more interesting.
Essentially, Pontius Pilate offered the crowed a choice between Jesus, the son of the father, and Jesus, the Son of the Father. We know that Our Lord repeatedly declared that He was the Son of God. In St. John’s Gospel, the Evangelist informs us, “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’ Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” (5:17-18) We also know that Our Lord said that the some of the Jews, through Abraham’s descendent, did not have God as their father. Rather, Our Lord criticizes them, saying,
“If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. … You are of your father, the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” (St. John 8:42, 44)
So the crowd is given a choice. On one hand they have a murderer, a rabble-rouser, a bandit, a liar, and a thief; on the other hand they have one who knew no sin, who harmed no one, who had raised the dead, who preach “turn the other cheek,” who, upon being accosted, instructed his followers to put away their weapons. The crowd is given a choice between a son of the Father of Lies and the Son of the Father in Heaven. Of course, the crowd chose wrongly and went with the spirit of the world. They rejected the Son of the Father in Heaven in favor of the son of the Father of Lies.
This is also a choice that we face daily. In every trial and temptation we choose with whose son we will ally ourselves. When we reject the evil and choose the good, we ally ourselves with Jesus, the Son of God the Father in Heaven. When we reject God’s will for us, we also reject His son and embrace the son of the father of this age. The choice is not a one time decision; we face it a hundred times in our daily walk. Sometimes we choose wisely; others we choose poorly. In every trial, temptation, and decision, make the choice of which son you will ally yourself and whom you will have as your father.