Nobody ever tells you who Barabbas really was. I remember, as a child, watching cartoon depictions of Christ’s Passion (and one time—early enough for the violence and the Satan Baby to be permanently scarring—Mel Gibson’s graphic version), in which the prisoner offered by Pilate to be freed is presented as a terrifying thug. He is always muscular and bearded, usually shirtless, sometimes tattooed. In Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, his right eye is dead and glazed over, his front teeth black and jagged, his demeanor wild and manic in hyperbolic contrast to the stolid Jesus of Nazareth.
Maybe he was all of these things; I doubt I would want to run into him in a dark Jerusalem alley. But he was not, as the narrative we teach our children usually suggests, a simple murderer. His crime was political: He had committed murder during an uprising against the Roman occupiers. He was one of the Zealots, a sect whose adherents Josephus says “agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.” He may even have been a sicarius, a dagger-wielder: a splinter group of anti-occupation terrorists who hid sicae in the folds of their cloaks to assassinate Romans quickly only to fade back into a crowd.
It was also theological. The Jews had been promised deliverance. With subjection to the Romans only the latest in a centuries-long string of oppressions and indignities, many began to tire of waiting for God’s assurance to be fulfilled. And so his name, bar-Abbas (“son of the father”), signifies a choice: between the King whose kingdom is not of this world, and a pretender who promises liberation in the here and now. Only when we understand this does the choice of the Jews make sense. It is no senseless indulgence of some random street criminal, but an option for a temporal champion, an idol, over the true Messiah. In some sources, the man’s name is recorded as Jesus Barabbas.
The freeing of Barabbas can then be understood as a warning against the zealots of our own day and age—and it is that. But we must be mindful of letting caution morph into quietism. The reality of the temptation to “immanentize the eschaton” does not give us permission, much less a mandate, to step aside and let history run its course.
To illustrate the risk of overcompensation, we might look to the man who offered the choice between Jesus and Barabbas: Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea. Here again, the political quietists misunderstand the Passion’s implications. Our Lord, they say, was killed by the government; His persecution, much like that attempted by Herod decades earlier, sits at the beginning of a long tradition of Church-state animosity. But Pilate is no tyrant: He simply washes his hands and steps aside. He does, in fact, exactly what we risk doing when we are overcome by too much fear of Barabbas. Pilate’s error is not an abuse of government but a failure to govern.
If there is a political man in the Gospels whose example we should follow, it is the Pharisee Nicodemus. (We can do more, in fact, than follow his example; we can pray for his intercession.) He is a teacher and leader of the Jews—most likely one of the 71 judges of the Sanhedrin. He becomes convinced of the truth of Jesus’s teachings and his claims to divinity, and so comes by night to hear what the Messiah has to say.
He is wise as a serpent. He does not turn his back on his worldly duties. Later in John’s Gospel we find Nicodemus still among the Pharisees, speaking on behalf of the accused Messiah. We have our Pilates. We have plenty of Barabbas. It is Nicodemus that the current moment lacks so desperately.
It is Nicodemus, some tradition holds, who takes the Lord’s body down from the cross. The evangelist tells us that he brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes—an amount fit for a king—to anoint the dead man’s body. There is a beautiful depth to this fact. It is Nicodemus, the man who stands in the breach for Christ—who refuses either (like Barabbas) to buck the constraints of the world in which he lives or (like Pilate) to shed its responsibilities—who takes charge of the battered body of the God just crucified. At the center of one of the Incarnation’s most terrible, consequential, and yet (as we know) good moments, we find a man who truly understands it.
For, as we learn when Nicodemus first approaches Christ, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”