Choosing Jesus or Barabbas: Reflecting on Gun Violence in America

Transcribed and edited from the sermon above, given in Trinity Church on March 25, 2018, by the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, Vicar. Download a PDF of the sermon text here. 

Mark 15:15

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, Pilate handed him over to be crucified.

Pilate spoke to them again: “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” The crowd shouted back “Crucify him.” Pilate asked them “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them. And after flogging Jesus, Pilate handed him over to be crucified.

Let’s be clear about some things at the outset. First, Jesus was before Pilate because the Jewish council had convicted him of what crime? Blasphemy. Blasphemy for denigrating the name of God. He was before Pilate, the Roman administrator, the Roman procurator, the Roman governor of Judea, because they accused him of blasphemy against God.

But Pilate could not have cared less about that charge. Pilate, Pontius Pilate, a historical figure, was the Roman official charged with keeping order in the raucous, unruly province of Judea. Pontius Pilate was in Judea for ten years. Pontius Pilate hated the Jews. So, a charge of blasphemy meant absolutely nothing to that man. He could not have cared less. But see what happens during the course of the trial before him. The charge goes from blasphemy to what? High treason. High treason. Now, there was a charge that Pilate cared about.

You see, Pontius Pilate was the creature, was the client of a man named Sejanus. Anybody heard of that name, Sejanus, and who he was? He was the head of the Praetorian Guard under which emperor? Tiberius. And after being found out by Tiberius in a plot, what did Tiberius have done to Sejanus? He killed him. He had him executed. And Pilate, because he was the client, and that’s a Roman relationship ... the client of Sejanus, he was kind of iffy as to what his loyalties were. And Pilate wanted to make sure that the emperor would not think him guilty of the same crime, high treason. And high treason was a capital offense.

If blasphemy in the Jewish world was taking God’s name and misappropriating it, then high treason in the Roman world was abusing the emperor. And the punishment for that was nothing but death. And so, there’s Pilate, at Passover time in Jerusalem, when the population would swell by some four times. And the Jewish zealots, the Jewish revolutionaries would come out of the woodwork in order to subvert Roman rule. Let’s be clear about that. The zealots and the Jews themselves, the ordinary Jerusalemites had no truck with the Roman administration. No truck whatsoever.

And so, when they bring before him this ... this rustic from the north, Pilate could not care less about their intermixing religious disputes. But when the charge subtly morphs to he’s king, he makes himself king of the Jews, Pilate perks up. Because he won’t be accused ... he won’t be accused of not defending the emperor. So, Pilate brings before the people this man and Pilate questions him. The man is curiously silent. Says nothing in his defense. Pilate was used to a defense being made, but he won’t. The man won’t speak. Pilate’s curious. So, Pilate does what any good politician does, even 2000 years ago. Pilate takes a poll. Pilate takes a poll. I want to read you something. This is from 1951. It’s a commentary on this little passage.

This is right after World War II. The writer says, “This was Pilate’s decision to make. That was his business. He was the procurator, the highest local Roman authority. Instead of making it, he went to the crowd and asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Instead of meeting his personal responsibility, he took a poll of public opinion. More than anything else, he wanted to be right in popular esteem.

“And so instead of being a voice, he became an echo. He is a tragic demonstration of the danger of making crowd opinion the deciding factor in life. That danger is accentuated whenever there is a tendency to make some kind of poll the guide to action in business and politics. The one question that deserves to be raised is not what is being said this year, but what has God said all the years?”

So, Pilate brings out a revolutionary. Now, it is common to think of Barabbas as what? As a thief, a criminal. Well, in Roman eyes he was a criminal, but he was a criminal because he was a revolutionary and he fought against the Roman authority. Barabbas was a nationalist whose slogan could be “Judea for the Judeans”. Jesus, on the other hand, said, “Love your enemies.” This is the choice the people had. Barabbas or Jesus. One’s a nationalist, one says love your enemies. Barabbas is a man of violence who believes that any form of resistance and fighting against the Roman overlords was acceptable. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Barabbas said that “Evils are all external to us. Drive out the Romans and all will be well.” Jesus called for repentance and a turning back to God. Across the years, Pilate’s question still sounds in our ears. Which do you choose? Barabbas or Jesus?

Yesterday was a big day around the world, wasn’t it? We had young people coming out from all over the world to protest gun violence. We had some people from here go down to Washington, D.C. We had this wonderful group playing drums. Drums, Not Guns. You know, in two weeks I’m going to turn 55. I’m getting up there. And I don’t know what your experience growing up was like but when I was a kid, getting shot in school wasn’t even on the table. When I was a kid, getting shot in school wasn’t even in our possibility. School was safe. School was protected. When I was a kid, it’s not just that we didn’t worry about getting shot, it wasn’t even a possibility. Right?

And now we are willing to say, “Well, that happens.” And that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. We’re willing to turn our backs when children say, “I don’t want to get killed in school. I don’t want to see my friends get killed in school.” And we adults act as if what? “Oh, well, you know, that’s the price we’re willing to pay.” And that, my friends, is insane. That’s insane. Because children ... children shouldn’t have to worry about that, not at school, not at home, not in the street, not anywhere. Children shouldn’t have to worry about getting killed. Why? Because we feel that the higher value is to own a gun. The higher value is the future. And the future are children.

What does it say about us, what does it say about us that we will put the future off and tell the future “We don’t really care about you; we like you but we don’t really care about you, because to own this gun is more important than you?” You know that’s what we’re saying, right? And we say it over, and over, and over again. And every time something happens, we cluck ... “Oh, boy, here it is again. Yeah, well ...”

But you know what? Young people are saying something different now. Young people are standing up and saying, “If you won’t do it, we’re going to try. If you won’t do it, adults, we’re going to try. We’re going to try to change this, so that you can’t just keep saying, ‘Oh, well, what’re we gonna do? What’re you gonna do?’” Who are you going to choose?

Now, let me just map this out. There’s no stretch of the imagination that I can make by which I would say that in the realm of the Kingdom of God that in what it means to be a Christian, that owning a gun is more important than a child’s life. I can’t possibly say that. I can’t possibly make that claim. And I don’t believe we can either, can we? Who’re you going to choose, Barabbas or Jesus?

To finish the quote, it ends this way: “We can crucify him still. Whenever we take the words of Jesus in anything but deep seriousness, whenever we try to kill in our world the things he lived for and died for, we take part in the crucifixion."

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