24 Hours that Changed the World: Jesus, Barabbas, and Pilate
I’ve always found Pontius Pilate to be a fascinating biblical figure. It’s strange, isn’t it, that while the twelve disciples spent three years of their lives with Jesus, we know so very little about them. Sure, we know a lot about Peter. But what about Bartholomew or Thaddeus? The Bible says almost nothing about them. Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate spent just a short time with Jesus on one day, and yet we hear more from Pilate than we do half the disciples. We don’t know a lot about Pilate’s background – there are some conflicting stories over where he was born and what family he was part of – and we don’t know much about his life before he appears in the gospels. He’s mentioned in only a couple other historical sources from the time, and just briefly. But we know that he was a prefect in Judea, and that prefects had certain duties – mostly military oversight and collecting taxes, but also judicial responsibility in some local affairs. During big religious festivals like the Passover, Pilate would be expected to be in Jerusalem, to make sure things were kept under control. And we know that he served as prefect in Judea from 26-36 AD, recalled to Rome perhaps just a year or two after Jesus’ trial. It seems that Pilate frequently found himself in conflict with the people he governed, and his superiors were not happy with his performance. (1)
In the gospels, Pontius Pilate appears only in the trial of Jesus and surrounding events. His name is occasionally mentioned in Acts and in the writings of Paul, but only in reference to Jesus being tried before him. And in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, we get the same general story – we see a Pilate who seems to be struggling between a feeling that Jesus is innocent of the crimes he’s accused of, and a Pilate who is concerned about the crowds and potential mob rule, wanting to please the people to keep them under control. Jesus has been arrested, and already been interviewed by the chief priests. But Pilate had authority over certain matters – in fact, even the high priest was named by the Roman government (1) – and the religious leaders wanted Pilate to condemn Jesus. In Mark’s account, on which we focus today, Pilate questions Jesus, asking him if he is the King of the Jews, a claim with political overtones that would threaten both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. But Jesus, keeps silent, despite the questioning. When questioned by the Sanhedrin, Jesus identified as the Messiah. But before Pilate, the one who actually has power to sentence him to death, Jesus says nothing.
Pilate then offers to release a prisoner – Barabbas. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Barabbas was called “Jesus Barabbas.” Mark tells us that Barabbas was a man who was in prison with other rebels, convicted of murder and insurrection. In other words, he had been part of a violent attempt to overthrow the government. This Jesus – Jesus Barabbas – seems to have been part of exactly the kind of revolutionary overthrow of Rome that some were hoping Jesus of Nazareth would lead. Mark tells us, too, that Pilate thinks Jesus has been handed over to him because the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus' authority and popularity with the people. Pilate seems to want to find a way to set Jesus free without having to actually come out and make the decision. The crowds shout, spurred on by the chief priests, for the release of Barabbas and begin to chant for Jesus’ death – “Crucify him!” “Why?” Pilate seems perplexed. “What evil has he done?” “Crucify him!” they insist. Pilate, we read, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” finally gives in. In Matthew, we read that Pilate was afraid that if he didn’t concede, the people would have rioted, so he takes some water and washes his hands before the crowd, saying, perhaps hoping it would be true, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Pilate releases Barabbas, as the people requested, has Jesus flogged – we’re not even sure why – and hands him over to be crucified.
What do we make of Pilate and his actions? Did he just get caught up in something that was out of his control? Is it true what he thought? If he hadn’t allowed Jesus to be put to death, would there really have been a riot that the Roman soldiers could not control? Would Jesus have just been put to death another way by the angry crowds? Can you just decide to wash your hands of a situation and really be free from responsibility? Can Pilate simply declare himself innocent? Did Pilate believe Jesus should have gone free? Who, ultimately, is responsible for Jesus’ death? Could Pilate have taken a stronger stand? Wasn’t he in charge?
Just before Lent began, we read from Mark about Jesus asking people, “Who do you say I am?” I find myself wondering, reading about Jesus’ trial before Pilate: Who does Pilate say that Jesus is? Surely, we don’t have a lot to go on. But we start to gather a sense even from this scene in the gospels that Pilate catches a glimpse of who Jesus is. He has a feeling that Jesus is something different. He can see that the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus. He sees that Jesus is unwilling to argue with him over accusations and frantically defend himself. He seems baffled by the vitriol directed at Jesus. He is reluctant to condemn Jesus, and anxious not to be held responsible for what will happen to Jesus. When we take all these pieces, these clues, and put them together, it seems that Pilate, if not ready to call Jesus the Messiah exactly, knew that there was something about Jesus . . .
But for Pilate, ultimately, who he is is much more important to him than who Jesus is. Pilate is a prefect of the Roman Empire. What Pilate wants most is to escape blame, from Rome, from the Jews, no matter who Jesus turns out to be. He wants to have no responsibility for the situation before him, which is ironic for someone who wants desperately to keep their role of responsibility and authority. Pilate wants to show himself an effective leader – and he chooses to do that by seeking to satisfy the crowds. That might be strategic, but discarding justice for the sake of appeasing an angry mob isn’t leadership so much as cowardice. Pilate might believe there’s something more to Jesus – but ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference to him, because who he is, what he wants – his power, his control, his position – all of that is more important to him.
As always, what we learn here, what we learn about Pilate is only meaningful if we can see ourselves in his place. So, I have to ask – are there things that you believe, but your believing doesn’t make a difference to you, make a difference in how you live your life? Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Last week and this week we’ve been raising funds for Vera House’s white ribbon campaign, which particularly focuses on Men Leading the Way to eliminate violence and abuse against women and children. The campaign particularly emphasizes that staying silent when you are aware of abuse is not an option. It makes you part of the problem, in fact. Many professionals, like teachers, medical personnel, doctors, and in many places, clergy, are mandated reporters, who are required, legally, to report suspected child abuse. The law mandates that with knowledge comes a responsibility to act. But beyond the requirements of the law, our beliefs, as people of faith, as human beings who care for one another – our beliefs should impact our actions, right? Abuse is unacceptable, and we will not stay silent about it.
Or think of election cycles. One question I think voters often have is: Do what candidates say and what they actually have done or will do in office match up? A common accusation is that candidates flip-flop on positions. A candidate tries to appeal to liberal or conservative voters during primaries, but then during a general election, they’re criticized for distancing themselves from previous actions and statements when they’re trying to appeal to a broader base of people. Voters want to know: Is this what the candidate really believes? Or is the person just saying what he or she thinks I want to hear?
What about our faith journeys? What about discipleship? What I want to know is this: What do you believe about Jesus? Who do you think that he is? And what difference has that made in the way that you live? Or, like Pontius Pilate, are there too many things about who we are and what we want for ourselves for us to actually let what we believe about Jesus change our lives? “Wishing to satisfy the crowd” – how often could that description be applied to our actions? Who is it we want our actions to please?
One of my colleagues posed a question on his blog: “What is the most destructive force in a congregation?” He listed multiple-choice responses, including unresolved conflict, which had the most votes, followed by power struggles, narrow-mindedness, gossip, and keeping secrets. But I selected the ‘other’ option and added in my own response: apathy. The church is at risk when we don’t translate what we believe into how we live as individuals and as a congregation. To me, what is most destructive to churches is just this dilemma that we see in Pontius Pilate. We believe something, but what we believe doesn’t necessarily change anything. Consider what we believe as a congregation: I trust that generally, we believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe that Jesus set an example for us, believe that we’re meant to be disciples, believe that God loves us, and so on. We might come down differently on exactly what those beliefs mean in detail, but at the core, I think we’re on the same page. Where we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, where we need to do some soul-searching is when we ask ourselves: what difference does what we believe make?
In our discipleship, in our faith journey, we get into trouble when the cost of following Jesus is always more than we are willing to pay, and when what it costs us is always a bigger concern than acting on what we believe. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s apathy. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s of more concern than those who don’t know what they believe yet. For Pontius Pilate, the cost to himself was his primary concern. He knew Jesus shouldn’t be condemned to death. But the cost Pilate would bear was too much. What he was willing to risk, willing to ‘spend’ on what he believed was nothing. What are you willing to spend? What is that task to which God is calling you that nags at the back of your mind, the corners of your heart? What do you believe about God? And so what? How will your answer change your life? Amen.