Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday so quickly. How is it that we can shout “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify!” the next? How can we want for Jesus to save us on Palm Sunday, and then revel in Jesus’ torture and demand his execution on Good Friday? One day, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord;” the next day, “give us Barabbas!”
Is it our tendency for capriciousness? Perhaps. Could it be our desire for immediate satisfaction? Maybe. Might it be our desperation for certainty? Possibly. We might like to think that we would have reacted differently if we had been there. After all, we enjoy the benefit of having fast-forwarded a bit. In my parish, as well as in many others, the faithful will gather tomorrow evening at nightfall, kindle a new fire, and mark Christ’s passing over from death to life with shouts of, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
Where they were unsure about just who Jesus was, we know. Where they were under threat from the Empire, we enjoy the First Amendment. Where they were in the moment, we’ve read the story through to its end.
…When everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, the voices of our better angels are drowned out.
“There is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness,” writes Wendell Berry. “This sort of violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”
The truth is that although we are sure that it is Jesus we want, each and every one of us still clings to Barabbas. For as much as we might like the idea of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God, we’ve all gotten pretty used to Barabbas and the mechanisms of the Kingdom of this world.
We believe in Jesus, yes, but how much do we really believe in the ideas for which he gave his life? “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” but this is reality, so I’m going to “Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto me.” We teach our children to tell the truth, but how often do we rebuff or dismiss others when they speak their truth because it does not fit with our own? Justice sounds nice, but the moment we say, “I’m gonna get mine,” justice vanishes and is replaced with vengeance and retribution.
If Holy Week and Good Friday remind us of nothing else, they remind us that when it comes right down to it, we’re not quite prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We might be fascinated enough with Jesus to steal a knife and cut the ropes that tied him to the cross, but we will follow him only from a safe distance, so as to avoid sharing his fate.
This is the great irony of Good Friday: the longer we convince ourselves that if only we had been at the foot of the cross instead of Jesus’ cowardly and fickle friends, his fate would somehow have been different, the louder our shouts demanding Barabbas and condemning Jesus become.
In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the 19th century philosopher and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, makes a startling observation. It was not the wicked who put Jesus to death; rather, Nietzsche argues, crucifixion was a deed of the “good and just.” “’The good and just’” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good. The “good and just” have to crucify the one who devises an alternative virtue because they already possess the knowledge of the good.”
The crucifixion of our Lord was not the work of some foreign terrorist’s wicked plot. It was the result of good people like you and me who could not abide having our notions of justice and fairness and truth questioned. After all, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us in The Gulag Archipelago, “To do evil a human must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”
In the crucifixion of our Lord, we encounter the crucifixion of our certainty. We encounter the crucifixion of our fickle and capricious notions of justice and fairness and truth. As the body of our Lord lay broken, we come face-to-face with our sinfulness—our treachery—and we are shattered.
“Give us instant gratification! Give us vengeance! Give us comfort!”
“Give us Barabbas!”
And so they did.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.
 Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle” in Our Only World, p. 94.
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation p. 276.
 Ibid, p. 61. Volf is following Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1971.