Every year, I get very reflective once Easter rolls around. Seriously – from Palm Sunday all the way to the Resurrection Sunday that follows, I find myself in an way overly reflective mood lol. This year, what stood out most in all my pondering was that the point of having Easter as a holiday is not just to celebrate Christ and his resurrection – Easter is also the story of Grace: forgiveness, mercy, freedom and life, all packaged into one beautiful gift, secured on a cross just for you and me.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve struggled to understand Grace. It is one of those things we say we believe in, but find difficult to accept in our own lives. It’s easy to know you have access to, but hard to allow yourself to take hold of – to actually be a recipient of Grace, from God and even from ourselves.
I think to understand something, sometimes you have to start at the beginning. So, today I decided there would be nothing more fitting for an Easter post than to take a trip back in time to the day Grace was born. And not to the moment where Jesus hung from the cross and breathed his last – no, to truly find a fitting illustration of Grace, we have to begin some hours before that…
It’s morning. Jesus stands before the governor, his hands and feet shackled tightly together. On either side of him, a burly guard, making him look dangerous and yet at the same time more harmless than ever before. His face is bowed, but on closer look, his lips are moving – perhaps in recitation of the nunc dimittis, fully aware of what is to befall him this day.
Whispers fill the crowd: is this not Jesus of Nazareth? The son of Mary and brother to James, who claims to be the Messiah? The ‘Son of God’? The same man who calls God, ‘father’? A few chuckle at the suggestion – some Son of God he must be, shackled like a common criminal and sweating profusely under the gaze of Pontius Pilate.
Pilate, previously preoccupied with the documents before him, motions for silence and the crowd quiets down. He rises from his seat and walks slowly towards Jesus, then circles him. The crowd watches carefully. Pilate’s expression, usually one of contempt for the criminal who stands before him, is now a mixture of bewilderment and intrigue.
Now standing squarely before the Nazarene, he asks him a question. Though his voice is low, the silence of the crowd and the marble in the room causes the query to echo:
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
One of the councilmen who assisted in Jesus’ detainment runs over and, prostrating himself before Pilate, interjects:
“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king!”
Pilate does not respond or even acknowledge the information. He has read all the accusations already. His gaze is still locked squarely on Jesus.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” He asks again, this time more firmly.
Jesus’ lips stop moving. He looks up and meets the governor’s gaze.
“Who’s asking?” He responds.
The crowd begins to yell in uproar at the gumption of this man, but Pilate raises his hand again and silence falls once more.
“Am I a Jew?” He asks Jesus, “I have no vested interest in whether your claims are true or false. Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?”
Jesus answers without skipping a beat, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
Pilate’s brows furrow in confusion. “So you ARE a King?”
“If you say so.” Is Jesus’ only response, as he breaks their gaze and bows his head once more.
Pilate turns around and walks slowly back to his seat as the crowd erupts into loud whispers once more – these ones more angry and menacing than the ones before.
For the first time since he became governor, Pilate finds himself conflicted.
He has seen many criminals before – thieves, adulterers, murderers – too many to count. Having been in the business of meting out punishment and execution, Pilate knows a criminal when he sees one – and Jesus is no criminal. A fanatic, maybe. Possibly even out of his mind. But a criminal Jesus is not. Criminals tend not to confess to the very crimes they have been accused of – especially not when the penalty is death. And yet here is this man – a Nazarene who makes a living making furniture and feeding people in the desert – ready to give up his life, and for what? Pilate cannot figure out his motives, but neither can he justifiably sentence a clearly innocent man to death.
For the first time, Pilate finds himself – a man who serves as moral compass for the region – in a moral dilemma of his own. He sees the thirst for blood in the eyes of the Jews – a pardon will not go over easily – and yet one look at Jesus tells him that this man is a victim of a plot carefully woven together by the priests to assert their own authority in matters concerning their God. He, Pilate, is merely a pawn in their well-constructed plot.
He gazes in disgust at the priests loitering outside, unable to enter his headquarters in fear of being defiled before the Passover. If there is anything he despises more than criminals, it is criminals who masquerade as holy men.
Suddenly his face lights up. He has an idea: is it not during the Passover that the Jews offer pardon to a man on trial? The Roman Empire would not like this, but surely if he gives the crowd the option of choosing between Jesus and a real criminal to offer pardon to, Jesus will be released, and his conscience will remain clean!
He whispers to his General, who rounds up a few other soldiers, and they march out towards the prisoner cells. The crowd at this point is so riled up yelling obscenities at Jesus and demanding his execution that they barely notice as the soldiers march back in dragging a man in chains behind them.
The man’s name is Jesus Barabbas.
The irony of his name does not escape Pilate, who has been made aware that Barabbas in Aramaic means ‘son of the father’. His crimes are well known: he is a murderer and a dissident of the government – a miscreant with neither remorse nor regard for the customs of his people nor the laws of the Romans. Barabbas makes Jesus look like a saint. Offered the choice of freedom for Jesus or Barabbas, the people are bound to choose Jesus.
Pilate, assured that his plan will work, stands up once more, turns to the crowd, and says:
“I find this man Jesus guilty of no crime that is punishable by death, but still you demand his life. Your customs call for the pardon of one prisoner before the Passover, do they not? So today, I set before you Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter with outrageous claims of royalty, and Jesus Barabbas, a notorious murderer – who will you pardon?”
For a split second that feels like eternity, silence fills the room. Jesus’ head remains bowed, while Barabbas continues to tug violently on his chains. Barrabas has heard of this man Jesus and the miracles he has performed, healing and delivering many. He knows Jesus is guilty of no crime punishable by death – the crowd will surely ask for his immediate release and he, Barabbas will be sentenced for all the crimes he has committed. He struggles with his captors in a last-ditch effort for freedom, but knows deep down that his fate is sealed. Though he feels no remorse, he has committed the crimes, and now he must face the punishment – a punishment he is fully deserving of.
“Free Barabbas!” A single voice shouts out suddenly, loudly and fiercely, cutting through the silence like a knife.
Pilate’s heart rate quickens as he scans the crowd to determine where the voice came from, hoping to silence it before it can do more damage, but it is too late. He watches in disbelief as the chant of ‘free Barabbas!’ begins to spread, growing in might and urgency. Soon the people are screaming “Crucify Jesus of Nazareth!” like they are possessed.
“Jesus of Nazareth is guilty of no crimes! Barabbas is a murderer! Barrabas deserves death!” Pilate yells, trying to reason with them, but their cries at this point are deafening, drowning out everything else. His General turns to him, waiting for orders he already knows he must give.
“Free Barabbas, and give them Jesus to be crucified. I wash my hands of all of this” He says to the soldiers, trying not to let the inexplicable sorrow he feels in his heart creep into his voice, though he doubts anyone could hear it over the shouts for joy that have erupted throughout the crowd.
Jesus and Barabbas are led away in opposite directions, but for a moment their eyes meet, and Jesus’ face, expressionless just a moment before, now carries traces of a smile.
Hours later, I’m sure Pilate sat in the same place he was hours before. The crowds would have dispersed and his chambers would echo with silence once more, except for the sound of his own heavy breathing. And I’m certain he would still be trying to make sense of what had happened that morning. An innocent man had chosen not to defend himself – Jesus chose the guilty sentence. And a guilty man had been set free. The punishment that was originally meant for the man who deserved it – a spiteful man with no remorse – was given to a man who had healed and saved many, a man without sin.
What happened in Pilate’s court is the perfect picture of what has been done for you and me.
We have been hauled into court time and time again, and accused of crimes we have indeed committed – knowingly and unknowingly, willfully and unwillfully. And time and time again, Jesus takes the punishment that is meant for us – that we deserve. And not only does he take our punishment, but he gives us freedom from death and abundant life in exchange.
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder what happened to Barabbas when he was released by the soldiers that day. Did he ever sit down and reflect on what had happened? Did he understand it? And if he did, what did he do with that precious gift of life he’d been given? Did he squander it? Or was he propelled by Grace into Purpose?
We may never know what happened to Barabbas, but this Easter I challenge us to not just ceremonially accept Grace, but to understand that it was given for a price – and a high one at that. This Easter, let’s see the story for what it really is: a call to better and greater life than we ever imagined.
We are Barabbas…
Jesus has taken the punishment we deserve: death.
He has died so we can have freedom from sin, death, and the grave.
So now that we are free, living in this wide open space called Grace, what will we do with our freedom?