This was my contribution to the three hours – a sermon centred around Barabbas and the paschal pardon in Matthew.
This Gospel makes me wince. On the face of it, there’s not much good news in this Gospel. It’s a scene of an ugly crowd, of humans turning into animals, full of bloodlust, a scene of civilisation turning feral and bloody. The line that has always haunted me was the line “his blood be upon us and upon our children”
His blood be upon us and upon our children. How much suffering has been caused by that line, by the misinterpretation of that one line? Long before the second world war, the Jews were persecuted throughout history. The dominance of Christianity, and the interpretation of this scripture made them outcasts, the Christ-killers, the ones who got it wrong.
Jews have been castigated and caricatured throughout history. The image of Judas has been taken as the archetype, the avaricious, scheming, devious Jew.
Even today in the middle-east, Jews are castigated by Orthodox Christians as being the killers of Christ, and that image of Judas, bloated out of all possible proportion, is the one which is in their minds as they do so.
Caracature is a dangerous thing. The newspapers do it all the time. I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail not long ago (by accident I assure you) and I’m afraid almost every single headline could have been replaced by the words “Aren’t they awful?” Literally, every article on the main pages was about someone being a terrible person. The Caractures, whether they are about Drug addicts, Illegal immigrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, benefits cheats, whatever, all relied on caricature. They find the worst possible example of a specific group, point at that person and say “look at this! This is what they are all like.”
Christians have suffered this in recent years too. Richard Dawkins and the militant atheists have been very good at doing that – finding the most ignorant creationist, the most harsh and unkind conservative, the most loose thinking liberal, and they have pointed to them and said “Look! This is what these people are like”. It’s a very effective weapon.
Thos who live by caricature tend to die by it, so maybe it’s our own fault that we are characterised thus. Because our own caricature of Jews has done real and lasting harm to a whole race.
Ironically enough, those priests who would still today castigate the jews for their part in the death of Christ, confidently proclaim that his death was necessary. O Felix Culpa, they cry, O happy fault, that Christ had to die. But instead of thanking them, they are condemned. And it is Matthew’s Gospel, and in particular this very verse, “his blood be upon us and upon our children” which is to blame.
It makes you want to stop them saying it, stop them going just that bit too far – “and on our children”.
It seems astonishing that Matthew, the writer of this gospel, and a Jew, would put such words into the mouth of the crowd. It’s not in any other Gospel.
Did he hate his own people so much? There’s no redeeming feature – he makes a point of saying “the whole people” not just the rabble, not just the Pharisees and the High Priests, but the whole people.
Would Matthew really do that?
Well the answer is no. It’s really not what it seems to our twenty first century eyes. To a first Century Jew, I suspect it would be obvious, but to us, separated from this Gospel by culture and time it is not. Like so much in this twisted tale which we call salvation, it is the opposite of what it seems. This is not the damnation of the Jews, it is their redemption, and the clue, our key to seeing what Matthew was trying to say, is Barabbas.
Barabbas is a strange figure. We know nothing of him, other than what the Gospels say. But Matthew is very circumspect about him. Whereas John says “he was a bandit”, and Mark, whom Matthew relied on, said he was a murderer, Matthew says, carefully, “he was a notable prisoner”. That’s often translated notorious, but aside from the translator’s spin, the word is notable. Just “a notable prisoner”. Just like Jesus was a notable prisoner.
Barabbas is completely silent throughout, says never a word. Just like Jesus.
But Matthew does something no other Gospel writer does. He gives Barabbas a first name. Often edited out of the Bible, Matthew called him Jesus.
Jesus Bar Abbas. Bar Abbas, means Son of the Father, or perhaps Bar Rabbas, son of the teacher. So Pilate says to the crowd, in Matthew “Do you want Jesus Son of the Father, Or Jesus who is called the Christ.”.
And it is at this point that you wonder quite what on earth is going on in Matthew’s Gospel. Who is this Barabbas?
Who he was, the real Barabbas, is lost to history. There was clearly a person in Mark’s gospel which was well known at the time, but we know nothing of him other than the scant details of Mark. But what we do know is how Matthew made use of him to say something about the Jews. And it was not to damn them, it was to save them.
If you were a first century Jew reading this passage, with two prisoners, both called similar names, one of whom goes free and one of whom is killed, your mind would turn to very familiar rituals – the rituals of purification. The Jews had many rituals for cleansing people from their sins and uncleanness. There are lots of different variants, but all of them involve the same ingredients. A pair of ritually clean animals, doves, of lambs, and some water. The priest would wash his hands, to show himself to be innocent (as the psalmist says, “I shall wash my hands in innocency”), and then the priest would let one of the clean animals go free, and sacrifice the other, and sprinkle the blood of the slain animal on the person to be purified. Literally, being washed clean by the blood of the lamb.
And so for Matthew, the Jews’ condemnation of Jesus, full of hate and spite as it was, had become the means by which God would redeem them, purify them – “his blood be upon us and upon our children” was washing them clean for eternity.
The God of Matthew was more radical than we often make room for. The God whom Matthew saw in the ragged Man on the Cross was a God who did not damn people for disloyalty, but saved them despite of it. A God who transformed their evil into salvation. Every evil turned to good, every hate redeemed into love. This is the God of Matthew’s Gospel. A God of indomitable, reckless love.
There is so much amid the grime and gore of this scene which is easy to miss, but there is a richness and an unspeakable beauty in this spiced and poignant message of Matthew.
The message of Barabbas then is twofold.
Firstly it tells us that God’s will is done, that love will out, and even instruments of hate, even hearts full of spite and evil will be transformed. However dark the Day, love will transform it.
Secondly, it tells us something about how we should believe in such a God of reckless love. The thing which strikes me more than any other, is that Matthew is trying to tell us that the Jews, are saved, regardless of their belief in Jesus, regardless of their understanding of God.
We should remember that when we feel that our Christianity is getting tribal, doctrinal, prescriptive. That the Jews were saved, whilst remaining Jews. Redemption for God according to Matthew does not mean that everyone starts behaving well, or that we all become good Christians. It means that God has decided that we are loved, and that is an end to it. Christianity is not about doctrine, it is about love. And that is an end to it. It is not about what we do, or believe, that matters. It is about what God does, and who God is.
As for the real Barabbas, the man who stood with Christ on the other side of Pilate, who heard the voices of the crowd calling his name, instead of Jesus, I wonder how he felt. Did he feel regretful, that his freedom meant death for Christ? Did he not care? Did he puff himself up, thinking that the crowd loved him? But perhaps he felt what we should feel on this day.
Thank God I am free. Thank God I am free.