As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
All four of the gospels tell us that during Jesus’ trial, a man named Barabbas was released while Jesus was condemned to death. We know nothing about Barabbas except that he was involved in an insurrection or riot and had committed murder. It is quite clear that he was guilty of significant crimes. His release and Jesus’ associated sentence of death on a cross despite his innocence is by all accounts an egregious injustice. Jesus takes the place of Barabbas, and here we touch on something fundamental to the Christian understanding of the crucifixion that goes far beyond just this one criminal.
Earlier in Mark’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that he ‘came…to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ suffering and death accomplishes something that is beneficial for others—indeed, for us. No small amount of ink has been spilled across the centuries in attempting to explain, often with great theological sophistication, how Jesus’ death offers us salvation. It is all too easy in such discussions to miss the most important thing amidst the argumentation.
Perhaps we might find some benefit this Holy Week in simply marveling at the reality that Jesus’ death sets us free and reconciles us to God. We need not fully understand this mystery in order to be filled with an awe and gratitude that allows us to say with boldness on Good Friday, ‘we glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world’ (BCP 281). Jesus’ suffering and death offers freedom not just to the criminal Barabbas but to us all.
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 220)