Suffering and the Three Barabbases

A few posts ago, facing Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in his attempt to destroy Jesus, we began a contemplation as to why the innocent suffer.  At first our human nature immediately accuses God of mismanaging the universe, but we then stand under the hypocrisy of demanding free will and yet condemning God for the results of the choices that humans make.  We tend to overlook that it is not God Who holds the bloody knife, but rather humans that do.

The familiar story of Barabbas [Matthew 27:16-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-25; John 18:40] highlights this important fact.  Both Mark and Luke, and even John’s “robber” (possibility meaning “insurrectionist”), identify Barabbas as probably what we would call a ”terrorist,” possibly of that day’s “sicarii” group or something similar.  Their “Cause” is “worthy” and “true,” it brings “freedom” and “importance” to “the common person.”  It is time to throw off the shackles of servitude and inequality.

Such rebels often have a strange set of values: if someone dies on their side, he is a martyr; if someone dies on the other side, it is one for “The Cause”; and if an innocent bystander dies, it will be either the other side’s fault, or that the death was necessary to give evidence of how important their cause is, or to make the people they are “serving” fear them properly – or any number of ways that they can justify to themselves what they do.

Of course, the people for whose “benefit” and in whose name these things are done often reject the terrorists, since these rebels bring little more than chaos and destruction to everyone else.  What so often happens is that the noble virtues that are touted are really never meant for the masses.  Instead such revolts are merely the vehicle by which a select few take power, often cruelly, over everyone else.  Of such are the examples of the French revolution, with its “citizen” and guillotine; and of the Communist revolution, with its “comrade,” firing squads and Gulags.

Barabbas is held for murder and rebellion.  In his bid to free Palestine from the Romans, he has willingly wreaked suffering and horror on others.  To the Romans, he deserves to die as painful and agonized a death as they could possibly dream up: the cross.

On the other hand, there is Jesus, a rebel of a different sort.  His desire is to give true freedom and importance to the common person, not only in giving one release from sin, its power and its effects, but also in His offer to each person, of the relationship of sonship with God Himself.  Jesus presents a truly different life, not based on power but on bona fide love; His change comes not by forced control but on a different meaning for our lives and on just who we are.  As Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, this revolution comes from willing submission to each other.

Apparently He is the genuine article: Pilate declares there is no fault to be found in Jesus [Luke 23:4; John 19:4] – in fact, even the false witnesses could not make even a false accusation stick [Matthew 26:59-63; Mark 14:56-59].  Other places also confirm His innocence [Isaiah 53:9; II Corinthians 5:21; I Peter 2:22; I John 3:5]), so that before God’s law He does not stand under the penalty of death – He deserves life.

However there is something important in a careful reading of the Biblical accounts leading to Jesus’ death: one discovers that He is not a victim here.  Although the humans think they have Him by the proverbial throat, not only does He not stop the process as He simply could, He actually assists each stage: the Jewish leaders cannot condemn Him until He gives them what they need; Pilate is permitted to condemn because Jesus will not resist the death penalty.
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In so doing, the stage is set for a most interesting exchange: Barabbas is released, while Jesus is condemned – the innocent dies the agonized death, while the guilty lives in full freedom.  But, as just noted, this is not simply an objectionable miscarriage of justice, rather Jesus has controlled the situation so that in the end He deliberately takes upon Himself the suffering and death deserved by someone else.

This is a most unique twist in our discussion on suffering!  Here an innocent suffers, not as a victim but by choice.  This is not masochism where pain is used in a perverted sense of self-gratification, but rather it is something that springs out of a genuine caring about another person.  It is the manifestation of the intense wish a family experiences when they stand at the bedside of a suffering or dying loved one, the wish that they could take some of the pain, or give some of their strength to that one.  Their private agony is their helplessness, but what happens here symbolically is what Jesus does ultimately.

In microcosm, this is the purpose for which Jesus came: to take upon Himself the penalty, the suffering, and the death that the rebellious deserves, meanwhile the very humans who have caused so much of the misery and suffering in the world are offered everything that He deserves.  It certainly is not fair, yet Jesus voluntarily shoulders the full weight of the guilt.

The “kicker” comes in the meaning of the name “Barabbas”: “The Father’s Son.”  There are two “Father’s Son”’s here – Barabbas and Jesus.  For Barabbas, the name has been merely a label for this human being; for Jesus, it is a description of His divine nature.  John in his Gospel [1:12] tells us that Jesus gives people “the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His Name.”  Jesus takes upon Himself the deserved suffering of Barabbas, meanwhile offering in return to fill his name with real meaning.

There is no further mention of Barabbas anywhere as far as we know.  How he responds to this exchange of life and death, there is no indication.  Does he merely return to his life as it has been, or does he ultimately allow Jesus’ sacrifice – and resurrection – make the name “Barabbas” become the reality of a relationship with God?  We are left hanging, probably deliberately so.

It has the ring of what may have been Mark’s original ending to his Gospel: after the women meet the angel in the empty tomb on Easter morning and they hear the news of Jesus’ resurrection, “they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” [16:8].  We are left with a puzzle: Should not there be more to the account?  After all, if the bearers of this wonderful Good News kept silent, how then have we heard about the resurrection??  Somebody has to have shared the Good News!  C’mon, now, just what is “the rest of the story”?

The answer lies in the fact that there is a third Barabbas.  In Baptism we also are made “Sons [children] of the Father”: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God – and so we are!” [I John 3:1] – Barabbas’ story has been precisely our story as well!  We are pulled into the Biblical account to write our own completion, whether it be good or bad, whether “Barabbas” remains merely a label or, in Jesus, it becomes fact.  Equally so, we also are the bearers of some wonderfully Good News – just what will we do about what we now possess?  How will the account of our lives end?  What will be the conclusion to the story of this “Son of the Father”?

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