But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.John 19:15
As we draw near to Lent, my mind goes back to the part of Holy Week I didn’t understand for most of my life: The choice of the crowd to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. I was taught simply that “the Jews” chose to release a murderer instead of Jesus. If this actually happened , describing it this way makes no sense. Why would you release a murderer at all, let alone instead of Jesus, for Christ’s sake? (ha ha) It wasn’t until later – until I learned that there was not just one, but many people who claimed to be the Jewish messiah (a partial list is on Wikipedia). And while I knew that people expected Jesus to be a different kind of messiah – a militaristic one who would overthrow the Romans – the implications of that expectation didn’t really hit me until recently. Because from the point of view of Rome, Jesus wasn’t a one-off claiming to be “king of the Jews”. He was one of a series. He was just the latest leader of the latest rebellion.  To Pilate and Rome, Jesus would be viewed the same as an American today would view a leader of the Islamic State, or Al-Qaeda. Put yourself in the situation of the crowd that day. Your ruler stands above you. Loyal – and armed – guards and police are on every side. Their hands hover near their weapons, waiting for an excuse to arrest you and your family – or worse. Then your ruler says: “Do you want me to release Charles Manson or…” He looks pointedly at the guards and police surrounding you “… the Al-Qaeda agent?”It doesn’t matter to them that you know the guy is NOT a terrorist, that it’s a case of mistaken identity. They decided who he was and whether or not he was guilty before any trial actually started. Your rulers have already intimidated those who disagreed with them. They have already punished those who have just disagreed with them. You could have the courage to do the right thing, to release the innocent man… and run the very real risk that you’ll be seen as a sympathizer. Reprisals would be a near-certainty. Or you could do the easy thing, releasing the criminal instead. It’s a hard choice. A choice between doing what is right, and doing what is easy. A choice between doing what is right, and doing what is safe. Which brings us, quite literally, to today. To the United States. To a ruler who has ostracized those who dare speak against him. To a ruler who has used his power to profit himself and those who support him. Who has intimidated and demonized those who simply disagree, let alone oppose him. (example, example) It is already too late to do things the proper way; that chance was thrown away last week. But there is a chance – perhaps the last chance – to not repeat history. To not be intimidated into doing the wrong thing. To not repeat actions that have allowed evil to flourish in the past. There is a chance, today, to do the right thing. There is a chance for the people – people who are acting on our behalf – to do the right thing. To show whether or not they – or we – would shout “we have no king but Caesar”… or if we would have the courage to speak the truth.  Quoting Wikipedia here: “All four gospels also mention that Pilate had the custom of releasing one captive in honor of the Passover festival; this custom is not attested in any other source. Historians disagree on whether or not such a custom is a fictional element of the gospels, reflects historical reality, or perhaps represents a single amnesty in the year of Jesus’s crucifixion.”  While Luke and Mark also calls Barabbas an “insurrectionist”, this is not mentioned in Matthew or John. Given that Luke and Mark were written for a Greek and Roman audience (respectively) while Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, I suspect that has something to do with the way Barabbas was characterized.