Which Jesus Do You Want?

A sermon for Holy Week

Sunday, 28 March 2010

For centuries the Christian church read the Passion Narrative during Holy Week and blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. This reading of the gospel narratives began as a protest of a disadvantaged minority in Palestine (Christians) against a dominant social group (Jews). As the number of Christians grew and the church became predominantly Gentile, this way of understanding the text turned into a way in which a dominant social group (Christians) repressed a disadvantaged minority throughout the Roman Empire (Jews). This reading of the gospels led to discriminatory laws, pogroms, and even the expulsion of entire populations of Jews from their homelands in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. Finally, this approach to the text laid the groundwork for the shift from religious discrimination to ethnic and cultural persecution, resulting in the Holocaust in the twentieth century. After almost two thousand years, most leaders in the church finally understood that reading the Passion Narratives in this way was an affront not just to the Jews but to God as well, and, for the most part, the church in the late twentieth century strongly rejected anti-Semitism, and many in the church also rejected the notion that the Jews were inferior to Christians on the basis of their religion.

If it is no longer valid to read the account of Jesus' passion in an anti-Jewish manner, what is a proper way to read the text, which does refer explicitly to Jews and Jewish leaders on many occasions? I think the key is to see the Jews in the text as people of faith, just like modern-day Christians, and to see their leaders as religious leaders who, just like religious leaders of today, do not always lead their flock in the path of justice. With that approach in mind, I want to propose a reading of Matthew's version of the encounter between Pilate and the people and the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. The passage is Matthew 27:15-23, with special emphasis on the text of verses 16-17, and it is applicable to contemporary Christians, who are faced with the question, "Which Jesus do you want?"

In Matthew 27:15-23, the evangelist tells his version of the story of the people asking Pilate to release Barabbas and have Jesus crucified. Several important witnesses to the text of Matthew have an interesting variant reading in verses 16 and 17, which identifies Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas, so that Pilate asks the crowd, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?" This reading is unique to manuscripts of Matthew, and although it is the minority reading among the Matthean witnesses, there is reason to believe that it may be the original reading of that gospel. First, the reading is attested in an important family of Greek manuscripts, sometimes called the Caesarean family. More significantly, the reading was known to the third century scholar Origen, who rejects the reading on theological grounds but notes that many manuscripts of his day have the reading. Of equal or greater importance to the combination of Greek manuscripts and the testimony of Origen is the existence of the reading in the Old Syriac witness known as the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript. If the reading "Jesus Barabbas" was original in these two verses, it is likely that early scribes, following the same logic as Origen, expunged the name Jesus from association with Barabbas, on the principle that the name Jesus itself should not be associated with a sinner like Barabbas.

In addition to the manuscript evidence, a careful examination of Matthew's presentation of the story (i.e., the intrinsic probability) also suggests that Jesus Barabbas was the original reading in Matthew. Of the four gospels, only in Matthew does Pilate give the people an explicit choice: "Which do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?" Without Jesus before Barabbas, the balance of the sentence is lost (who is called the Christ is only two words in Greek). Furthermore, there is no need for the specificity of who is called the Christ if only one of the prisoners is named Jesus.

Finally, when one considers the transcriptional probability of the two readings--i.e., which of the readings was more likely to have been produced by scribes copying the text of Matthew--the reading without Jesus Barabbas is much more probably the reading generated by scribes, for three reasons. First, some scribes would have been offended, like Origen, by the idea that Barabbas could share a name with the Savior, so they would have deleted it. Second, other scribes would have known that the other gospels did not identify the prisoner as Jesus Barabbas and might have harmonized their copy of Matthew to match the other gospels. Third, that scribes might have omitted the name Jesus before Barabbas can be easily explained, but there seems to be no rational explanation for scribes adding the name. In the end, though, whether or not Jesus Barabbas was the original reading of this passage makes no real difference to the kerygmatic impact of Matthew's account.

Whereas the other gospels identify Barabbas as a robber or a revolutionary, Matthew merely says that he was "a notorious prisoner." In other words, he was well known to the populace. People today seem desperately attached to popular people. They read about them in the scandal sheets, they view their video clips on YouTube, and they even follow their every move via Twitter. It doesn't even matter if the person is famous for a good reason, as the O.J. Simpson trial proved. Whereas Jesus Barabbas was famous for his violent behavior, Jesus Christ was famous as one who taught peacemaking and love of one's enemies. He was also famous for confronting the hypocrisy and misunderstandings of the religious leaders of his day. In a time when pedophile priests are again in the headlines, and church leaders are shown to have been more concerned with appearances than with the victims; when televangelists raise vast amounts of money to line their pockets while spending little on alleviating the suffering of the poor, all the while advocating political positions that actually harm the poor; when TV and radio personalities with no biblical or theological expertise pervert the gospel and instruct their followers to abandon the social teachings of the church in favor of policies that benefit the rich and powerful, the time for choosing which Jesus we want is now.

The name Barabbas means "son of Abbas" or perhaps "son of the father." Some early Christians interpreted the name to mean "son of the teacher." The phrase "son of God," on the other hand, although not used in this passage, is an appellation frequently given to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and, as a messianic title, is more or less equivalent to Christ. Jesus Barabbas, as was common practice in those days, was further identified by the patronymic "son of Abbas." Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is never called Jesus Bar-Joseph (or Ben-Joseph) in the gospels. Instead, he is called Christ, the Greek equivalent of messiah. It is unlikely that Jesus was called Jesus Christ during his lifetime, though questions about his identity as the Jewish messiah were undoubtedly historical. The significance of the phrase son of God, or Jesus who was called the Christ, is that the early church, from the very beginning, understood that Jesus was no ordinary human being. His life, his teachings, his death and resurrection, all identified him as someone specially sent by God. Because of this, his earliest followers took the name Christians, suggesting that their lives would be characterized by an attempt to imitate Jesus Christ. Jesus Barabbas followed the way of the world, which frequently gets its way through violence and intimidation. Jesus Christ showed his disciples a new way, one characterized by nonviolent resistance to the power structures of his day, and at the same time dedicated to ministering to the poor and outcast of society. If Jesus Barabbas was a revolutionary, it was apparent that he chose the path of violent resistance, in contrast to the method of ahimsa, nonviolence, that Jesus Christ practiced. The early church followed the lead of Jesus Christ, but many Christians today have bought into the lies that might makes right, that victory in battle proves God's favor, and that God's will can be accomplished through the inherently immoral way of war. The time for choosing which Jesus we want is now.

Jesus Christ taught his followers that in order to be good leaders they must learn to be good servants of others. Jesus Christ himself said that he came not to be served but to serve. The religious leaders saw Jesus Christ as a threat to their authority and to their popularity as well. If people listened to the message of Jesus Christ, they might stop making donations to the temple and the synagogue. They might stop following the teachings of the religious leaders in favor of the teachings of an upstart rabbi. Jesus Christ was a threat to their way of life. In contrast, Jesus Barabbas was no threat at all. In fact, the religious leaders could speak out against his violent acts, and the people would listen to them. They could not express their outrage at the message of Jesus Christ nearly so easily, because he spoke words that appealed to the masses, who were poor and marginalized, like sheep without a shepherd, as Matthew expresses it on another occasion. Some of the religious leaders of Jesus' day, like some of today's religious leaders, sometimes used their office for self-aggrandizement. Sometimes they used their authority to protect their allies and punish their enemies. Sometimes, though misguided understandings of scripture and theology, they simply advocated positions that were harmful to the very people they should have been most interested in protecting, the weak and helpless. Jesus Christ challenged their authority, most notably during the last week of his life in the incident in the Temple when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, decrying the commercialization of religion. Christianity today is often commercialized, and many religious leaders either fail to recognize it or buy into the heresy that unchecked capitalism is God's will on earth. Jesus Christ was a threat to the religious leaders of his day, and of ours, while Jesus Barabbas was and is not. The time for choosing which Jesus we want is now.

In Matthew, Pilate's wife warns him not to have anything to do with "this righteous man," and Pilate on the surface seems to follow her advice. But does he really? He washes his hands before the crowd and publicly distances himself from the fate of Jesus Christ. Yet he is the ultimate authority in Judea, and it is on his watch that Jesus Christ is executed. Pilate has a choice: release Jesus Christ and condemn Jesus Barabbas to death, or release Jesus Barabbas and condemn Jesus Christ to death. His public denial of responsibility notwithstanding, he makes a decision that affects the lives of the two men in question. The crowd, egged on by their religious leaders, calls for Jesus Barabbas to be released. The reason behind the clamor to release Barabbas is unclear, but it is reminiscent of the attention that the "bad boy" sometimes gets in today's world. People in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed the careers of criminals like Billy the Kid, the James gang, and Bonnie and Clyde with glee. Many today are similarly fascinated by the mayhem wreaked by serial killers. Jesus Barabbas was the bad boy of his day, while Jesus Christ was thought of by many as weak. Jesus Barabbas was a revolutionary who took matters into his own hands, even if it meant that lives of others would be lost. Jesus Christ was a revolutionary who also took matters into his own hands, but in a completely different way. He modeled the way of peace, even if it meant that his own life would be lost. He didn't appeal to the basest instincts of society but to the highest ideals of humanity. And people mocked him, just as they often do today to those who advocate positions that are taken as weak. But we call ourselves Christians because we ostensibly take the side of Jesus Christ against that of Jesus Barabbas. The time for choosing which Jesus we want is now.

The crowd, somewhat inexplicably to the modern reader, cries out for Jesus Christ to be crucified. Where did this bloodlust come from, and is it still present today, even in people of faith? It came from the depravity innate in all of us, the selfish desire to survive at all costs, even at the expense of others' lives. This same bloodlust leads many modern Christians to support pretty much any war that the government is selling. It leads many Christians to rejoice when we hear that our nation's enemies have been slaughtered on the battlefield or, more frequently, as the result of attacks by unmanned drones. If a few civilians are killed in the process, that's a shame, but that's what they get for being citizens of a country whose leaders (in some cases) provoked an attack. This bloodlust leads many Christians to support the execution of prisoners convicted of an ever-expanding number of state or federal crimes, despite Jesus Christ's admonition of the importance of showing mercy. Jesus Barabbas would have been right at home with the violent streak of many of today's Christians. Don't like the actions of a foreign government? Bomb 'em! (Or, to quote a recent presidential candidate, "Bomb, bomb, bomb--bomb, bomb Iran"; to the tune of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann.) Upset with politicians for passing a bill you don't like? Threaten them with violence and toss a brick through their office window! Was someone convicted of committing a violent crime? Kill 'em! If they're later found to have been innocent, oh well, too bad. If they turn their lives around in prison and begin making contributions to society even from behind bars, don't even consider letting them continue to be a positive roll model to some young gang bangers. It's blood we want, and it's blood we're going to get. Jesus Barabbas would have understood that attitude; Jesus Christ would not. The time for choosing which Jesus we want is now.

No modern Christian would ever admit to being a follower of Jesus Barabbas, but in fact that's exactly what many people are. Jesus Barabbas was selfish, just like we often are. Jesus Barabbas solved his problems with violence, and Christians have historically done the same, with their "just wars" and participation in combat and support of unconscionable "defense" budgets and advocacy for capital punishment and turning the other way when foreign leaders are assassinated by U.S. or U.S.-backed personnel in order to engender regime change. Jesus Barabbas was comfortable with the ways of the world, even when they conflicted with the prophets' teachings about justice and mercy and concern for the weak and marginalized, just like modern Christians often are. Jesus Barabbas was the choice of misguided (at best) or corrupt (at worst) religious leaders, who often allowed their political views and preferences to set the standard for their religious positions, just like many Christians today do. in short, Jesus Barabbas looked, thought, and acted just like many of his contemporaries. Jesus Christ did not. If Jesus Christ were here today, he would challenge the abuses that some of our religious and political leaders engage in. He would remind his followers of his teachings about loving one's neighbor and turning the other cheek. He would advocate for standing against injustice and standing with the same poor and weak that were the focus of his own ministry. He would remind his followers that their allegiance to the kingdom of God trumps their allegiance to any earthly regime and that nationalism (often called patriotism) is a form of idolatry. In fact, Jesus Christ is here today, in the voices of his followers who are begging their contemporaries to repent of their sins, to be converted to the ways of Jesus Christ and to turn from those aspects of the world that contradict his message. Selfishness, violence, bloodlust, hatred of one's enemies, nationalism, greed, partiality toward the rich and powerful, unconcern about the plight of the poor and marginalized, desire to maintain one's own privileged position at the expense of the rights of others, concern for maintaining the status quo, unjust social structures that institutionalize inequality and protect the privileged--these are some of the sins of the modern world that Jesus Christ stands against but Jesus Barabbas stands for, and all of us who call ourselves Christians are faced with a choice, the same choice a group of people of faith had one day two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. Which Jesus do you want?

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