THE CHOICE OF THE MOB
At the time of the Feast, it was the custom for the governor to release to the people a prisoner, whom they were accustomed to choose. There was a man called Barabbas, confined with the revolutionaries, who had committed murder during the insurrection. The crowd approached Pilate’s judgment seat and began to request that he should carry out the customary procedure for them. Pilate answered, “Do you wish me to release to you the King of the Jews?” For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over to him through sheer malice. The chief priests stirred up the mob to demand the release of Barabbas all the more. Pilate again asked them, “What shall I do to the man you call the King of the Jews?” Again they shrieked, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “What harm has he done?” They shrieked the more vehemently, “Crucify him!” Pilate wished to please the mob, and he released Barabbas for them, and, when he had scourged Jesus, he handed him over to them to be crucified.
Of Barabbas we know nothing other than what we read in the gospel story. He was not a thief, he was a brigand. He was no petty pilferer but a bandit, and there must have been a rough audacity about him that appealed to the crowd. Perhaps we may guess what he was. Palestine was filled with insurrections. It was an inflammable land. In particular there was one group of Jews called the Sicarii (GSN4607), which means the dagger-bearers, who were violent, fanatical nationalists. They were pledged to murder and assassination. They carried their daggers beneath their cloaks and used them as they could. It is very likely that Barabbas was a man like that, and, thug though he was, he was a brave man, a patriot according to his lights, and it is understandable that he was popular with the mob.
People have always felt it a mystery that less than a week after the crowd were shouting a welcome when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, they were now shrieking for his crucifixion. There is no real mystery. The reason is quite simply that this was a different crowd. Think of the arrest. It was deliberately secret. True, the disciples fled and must have spread the news, but they could not have known that the Sanhedrin was going to violate its own laws and carry out a travesty of a trial by night. There can have been very few of Jesus’ supporters in that crowd.
Who then were there? Think again. The crowd knew that there was this custom whereby a prisoner was released at the Passover time. It may well be that this was a crowd which had assembled with the deliberate intention of demanding the release of Barabbas. They were in fact a mob of Barabbas’ supporters. When they saw the possibility that Jesus might be released and not Barabbas they went mad. To the chief priests this was a heaven-sent opportunity. Circumstances had played into their hands. They fanned the popular clamour for Barabbas and found it easy, for it was the release of Barabbas that that crowd had come to claim. It was not that the crowd was fickle. It was that it was a different crowd.
Nonetheless, they had a choice to make. Confronted with Jesus and Barabbas, they chose Barabbas.
(i) They chose lawlessness instead of law. They chose the law-breaker instead of Jesus. One of the New Testament words for sin is anomia (GSN0458), which means lawlessness. In the human heart there is a streak which resents law, which desires to do as it likes, which wants to smash the confining barriers and kick over the traces and refuse all discipline. There is something of that in every man. Kipling makes the old soldier say in Mandalay:
“Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”
There are times when most of us wish there were no Ten Commandments. The mob was the representative of men when it chose lawlessness instead of law.
(ii) They chose war instead of peace. they chose the man of blood instead of the Prince of Peace. In almost three thousand years of history there have been less than one hundred and thirty years where there has not been a war raging somewhere. Men in their incredible folly have persisted in trying to settle things by war which settles nothing. The mob were doing what men have so often done when they chose the warrior and rejected the man of peace.
(iii) They chose hatred and violence instead of love. Barabbas and Jesus stood for two different ways. Barabbas stood for the heart of hate, the stab of the dagger, the violence of bitterness. Jesus stood for the way of love. As so often has happened, hate reigned supreme in the hearts of men, and love was rejected. Men insisted on taking their own way to conquest, and refused to see that the only true conquest was the conquest of love.
There can be hidden tragedy in a word. “When he had scourged him” is one word in the Greek. The Roman scourge was a terrible thing. The criminal was bent and bound in such a way that his back was exposed. The scourge was a long leathern thong, studded here and there with sharpened pieces of lead and bits of bone. It literally tore a man’s back to ribbons. Sometimes it tore a man’s eye out. Some men died under it. Some men emerged from the ordeal raving mad. Few retained consciousness through it. That is what they inflicted on Jesus.
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