“He is not guilty of any crime. But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner each year at Passover. Would you like me to release this ‘King of the Jews’?” But they shouted back, “No! Not this man. We want Barabbas!” (Barabbas was a revolutionary.) (John 18:38-40)
Relate: When we hear the name “Jesus” we think of a very specific person. For different people His name might mean different things, one might call Him a prophet, another a rabbi, a third a revolutionary while I call Him the one and only Son of God. No matter what our views on Him might be, we are each referring to a very specific person. Funny thing is, the name “Jesus” was actually an incredibly common name in His own time. That most famous of historians, Josephus, actually records nineteen people with that name in two of his four books. Of those nineteen, four of them were even high priests.
It was Jesus bar Pandira who many scholars believed founded the Essenes, a group of Jewish monks famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls. This Jesus was considered a wonder worker who made a career out of end time prophesy. He managed to upset the Maccabean king of his time and ended up being hung on a tree on the eve of the Passover.
There is also Jesus bar Gamala. He was the leader of the peace party inside the city of Jerusalem while it was being besieged in 68-69 AD. He carried out negotiations with the leaders of the Idumeans who had the city under siege (James and John, the sons of Susa). Unfortunately, those negotiations led nowhere and Jesus was killed when the city fell.
We also have Jesus bar Thebuth in the city of Jerusalem at the same time, but he didn’t die. He bought his life. You see, he had the fortune of being the high priest at the time and he stole some of the goods from the Temple which he traded away to the besiegers to save his own neck.
Jesus bar Ananias bears some similarities to the Jesus we know. In 62 AD he gets up and starts saying some very disturbing things about the coming destruction of the Temple. This upsets the authorities enough that they hand him over to the Romans. The Romans whip him, declare him a madman and then let him go. Seven years later he could still be found inside Jerusalem yelling out in broken repetition, “Woe to the city and the temple and the people!” Like a broken record he kept yelling out the same thing over and over again until he finally added the last time, “and woe to me also.” Immediately a stone flung from a ballista scored a direct hit on this unfortunate prophet.
There was another Jesus who was crucified by the Romans in the town of Lydda around 75 years after the Messiah. Then there’s the Jesus that Paul refers to in his letter to the Colossians. The book of Ecclesiasticus, found in the Catholic versions of the Bible, was written by Jesus ben Sirach. Even that guy who led the Israelites into the promised land after the death of Moses, the guy for whom the sixth book of every Bible is named, shares the same Hebrew name as Jesus.
Of all the people named Jesus in Jewish history, there are two that I really want to focus on here. The first is Jesus of Nazareth and the second Jesus bar Abbas, son of the father, or perhaps his name was Jesus bar Rabbis, son of the rabbi. Legend has been raised around this second Jesus that in his past he became frustrated with the cruel oppression of Roman tyranny and desperately wanted to do something about it. Jesus left his home and joined a group of freedom fighters known as the sicarii. The sicarii is actually a type of knife that these violent bandit/heroes would use. One of their most common tactics would be to hide the knife inside a loose cloak and pull it out in a crowd when assassinating a prominent Roman or a Jewish collaborator then melting away with the panicked crowd. Even a high priest was killed inside the Temple in this way.
The legend has it that Jesus Barabbas quickly rose to prominence among the sicarii. Unfortunately his fame or notoriety made it more and more difficult to hide as well as making his pursuers more diligent and motivated in hunting him down. He was finally captured along with two of his compatriots and was scheduled to be executed shortly before the Passover. Rome liked their executions to have the biggest crowd they could so that as many people as possible would realize the futility of resistance.
It is said that Jesus of Nazareth bar Joseph would have grown up around the same time and in the same town as Barabbas. The two possibly even knew each other as kids. Both were stirred to action by the evil they saw in the world and both were charismatic individuals who were gifted in motivating others to follow their way of life. But Jesus of Nazareth was offering a completely different way of living. He fought injustice through generosity and love. His message was not one of “roll over and take it” as some have improperly interpreted him but rather a creative, loving form of nonviolent resistance.
In its own way, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, was just as dangerous to both Jewish and Roman authority. He was also captured and handed over to the Roman authorities. Pilate, while not really knowing what to make of this man who was so much more, wanted to release him. The problem is, the Jewish people were being contentious. He feared that he might have no choice but to sacrifice this innocent man in order to avoid a riot.
Pilate knew how hated and feared the sicarii were by these religious leaders who had handed over Jesus so he hatched an ill conceived plan that he thought would force them to back down on rousing the rabble against Jesus the Christ. He throws before the people an option: “I am going to release to you a Jesus. (The name means savior or deliverer. That’s why it was so popular during the years of Roman oppression) Which ‘deliverer’ do you want: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus bar Joseph?”
There were two things Pilate did not reckon with in presenting this choice to the people. First, the leader’s jealousy and hatred of the Christ was far stronger than the potential threat presented by one more sicarii on the loose. Second, even though the Jewish leaders feared and hated the sicarii, most of the common people loved them. They weren’t considered terrorists so much as band fighting for their freedom. Considering the fact that the Passover they gathered to celebrate was a festival commemorating their freedom from Egypt, sentiment would be running high. The crowd, in choosing Barabbas made the choice to fight for their freedom through violence and war and power. In making that choice, deliverance through love and generosity was hung out to dry.
React: We still have a choice before us today. As the new year approaches, we have the opportunity for a clean slate, a new start in a different direction. Which direction will we choose? Will we, like Jesus bar Thebuth, try to purchase our deliverance by the accumulation and use of wealth? Will we, like Jesus bar Ananias, raise our voices bringing curses against our oppressor or perhaps go around crying out, “woe is me”? Will we, like Jesus Bar Abbas, take up a sword in the name of freedom to fight and oppress all those who disagree with our values? Or will we, like Jesus bar Joseph, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, take up our cross and lay down our lives. This year will we fight against injustice by loving the oppressor? How about it? Which Jesus will you choose?
In this moment as I am here before You, I chose You. I chose to follow Your way. The thing is, when my feet hit the road and when life gets lived out, it is hard to consistently stick to that choice. I can feel my flesh wanting to cry out “woe” or to strike back at perceived hurts. The urge to conform to a culture of accumulating wealth pulls at me. Help me to keep that cross held high. Help me to carry it, day by day, step by step throughout this new year. Let my one resolution be that I could grow more and more like your every day that breath continues to fill my lungs.