Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Daily Thought For January 13, 2016

Barabbas or Jesus?

But let us return to the temptation. Its real contents become apparent when we realize that over the course of history it keeps taking on new forms. The Christian emperors after Constantine immediately tried to make the faith a political factor that would be conducive to the unity of the empire. The kingdom of Christ was now expected to assume the form of a political kingdom with its splendor. The impotence of the faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was now supposedly compensated for by political and military might. In every century, in many forms, this temptation to secure the faith with power has arisen again and again, and over and over the faith has come close to being suffocated in the embrace of power. The battle for the freedom of the Church, the battle over the fact that Jesus’ kingdom cannot be identical to any political construct, must be fought in every century. For the price to be paid for fusing faith and political power, in the final analysis, always consists of placing faith at the service of power and bending it to political standards.

In the narrative of the Lord’s Passion the alternative that is at stake here appears in a striking form. At the climax of the trial, Pilate has the people choose between Jesus and Barabbas. One of the two will be set free. But who was Barabbas? Usually we think only of the formulation found in the Gospel of John: “Now Barabbas was a robber” (Jn 18:40). But the Greek word for “robber” had acquired a specific meaning in the political situation in Palestine at that time. It was the equivalent of “freedom fighter” or “member of the resistance”. Barabbas had taken part in an insurrection and furthermore—in this connection—had been accused of murder (Lk 23:19, 25). When Matthew says that Barabbas was “a notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16), it shows that he was one of the prominent members of the resistance movement, probably the one who actually instigated that uprising. In other words: Barabbas was a messianic figure. The choice, Jesus or Barabbas, is not coincidental: two messianic figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition. This becomes even more evident when we reflect that “Bar-Abbas” means “Son of the Father”. It is a typically messianic appellation, the cultic name of a prominent leader of the messianic movement. The last great messianic war of the Jews had been waged in the year 132 B.C. by Bar-Kokhba—“Son of the Star”. The construction of the name is the same; the same intention is announced. From Origen we learn yet another interesting detail: In many manuscripts of the Gospels, well into the third century, the man in question is called “Jesus Barabbas”—Jesus, Son of the Father. He appears as a kind of doppelgänger [double] for Jesus, who of course understood the same claim in a completely different manner. The choice, then, is between a Messiah who wages battle, who promises freedom and an earthly kingdom of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus, who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life. Is it any wonder that the crowds prefer Barabbas?

If we had to choose today, would Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father, have a chance? Do we know Jesus at all? Do we understand him? Do we not have to make an effort, today as always, to become acquainted with him all over again? The tempter is not so crude as to recommend to us directly that we should worship the devil. He only suggests that we should decide on what is reasonable, choose the advantages of a planned and thoroughly organized world, in which God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes. Soloviev ascribes to the Antichrist a book entitled The Manifest Way to Peace and Welfare in the World, which becomes, so to speak, the new Bible and has the worship of well-being and of rational planning as its actual subject.


Ratzinger, J. (2005). On the Way to Jesus Christ. (M. J. Miller, Trans.) (pp. 96–97). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.