Who is Barabbas? (or Why is “Good Friday” good?)

“…will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”  They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”  Now Barabbas was a robber.   -John 18:40

It’s hard to understand, unless we take some time to ponder it, what is “good” about “Good Friday.”  After all, it is the day that Jesus, the son of God, not only died, but was actually put to death at the request of the very people who were God’s “chosen” ones.

How can this be “good’?

In order to understand, of course, we must know a bit about our history.  Not the history of the world, per se, but the history of our salvation.  For that, we need to go all the way back to the book of Genesis, and a long-ago promise made between God and Abraham.  Here, Abraham is pleading with God to give him a son, an heir.  And God promises not only will he have a son in his old age, he will have so many descendants they will “number the stars.” (Gen 15:5)  But in order for Abraham to know that God was serious about this promise, God said to Abraham, “Bring me a heifer three years old…” (Gen 15:9)

Say what?

Yes!  This is why knowing our salvation history is so important.  Because in the days of the Old Testament, bringing animals to sacrifice is a sure sign that a covenant is being formed.  And in today’s terms we sometimes refer to a covenant as a “contract.”  But it’s really so much more than that!  In America today, if you break a contract, you may get taken to court and have to make a monetary payment of what you owe or possibly spend time in jail.  But in biblical times, animals were sacrificed as a covenantal promise that if one of you should break your end of the deal, you would bring a curse upon yourself and your family,  perhaps to the same end as the animals you are sacrificing:  death!  Further, a covenant was often made between one person who had much to offer, and one person who had less but needed what the other one had.  Very often the person who risked bringing the curse upon themselves was the person with less, because that person would be taking out a loan but promising to repay the person who had given them the loan.  Part of the covenant then, was for both parties then  to walk between the bloody carcasses of the sacrificed animals to indicate they were offering their life–or at least their livelihood– in exchange for whatever they needed from the other person, should they not repay it.

But something strange happens in the covenant between God and Abraham.  Tradition would dictate that in any exchange with God, God is “holding the cards” so to speak.  So  clearly, Abraham should walk through the animal carcasses to swear his faithfulness to God or risk being cursed or put to death.  Instead though, we are told that “a deep sleep fell on Abram” (Gen 15:12), and “when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (Gen 15: 17)  This fire pot and flame, in biblical terms, is none other than God himself agreeing to be cursed– even to the point of death– if he should not fulfill his promise to Abraham.  And what does Abraham need to do in return?  Stay faithful to God.  And this covenant is binding not just between God and Abraham, but between all generations after them.  Sounds simple enough, right?

But as it turns out it is the regular old sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of our Christian faith, that fail to keep the promise of faithfulness. Yet, we can see that God keeps his promise!  In the first chapter of Matthew, we are given these long ramblings of generation after generation who are the descendants of…you guessed it, Abraham. (Yes! This is where all the “begats” finally start to mean something.)  Matthew takes us through generations that “number the stars” from Abraham all the way down to the Messiah, who is, of course, Jesus.  Jesus, the son of Mary, the foster son of Joseph… and the only begotten Son of God.

If this were a movie, the music would be swelling right about now, because with the birth of Jesus, we are going to see God deliver on his covenant oath and establish a new one.  Here God himself enters into the ancestral line (pointing clear back to Abraham, the father of our faith) in order to make good on his covenantal promise.

Which means someone is about to pay.

Not because God didn’t keep his promise to Abraham, but because the sons and daughters of Abraham didn’t stay faithful to God!

So God will send us his Son to pay the price. And his Son will die.

But first, in today’s reading, the crowd is given one last chance to let God out of this covenantal oath and instead pony up for all their own years of faithlessness and broken promises.  Again, though, we must understand some biblical traditions.  That is, that it was customary that every year on the feast of Passover, a prisoner was released.  Yep. One completely guilty person, released and set free.  This is what is happening when Pilate offers the people one last chance to let the Son of God go free, but instead they choose, not Jesus,  “but Barabbas!” to be released. (John 18:40)

And this is where the music should stop, and the cameras zooms tightly on your face.

Or mine.

Because there it is in my footnotes:  Barab’ bas.  Aramaic meaning “son of the father.”

You see, God ponies up on his covenantal promise (a promise he didn’t even need to make with us) not because he didn’t keep his promise, but because we didn’t.  He pays our due in that moment in time, with the death of Jesus, the Son of the Father, instead of the rightful death of Barabbas, the son of the father.  Barabbas, the “robber” who stole the spot of the Blameless One, is set free.

Who is Barab’ bas?

Barabbas is you.

Barabbas is me.

Because Jesus took the place for our unfaithfulness and sins.

And we are free.

Free from this covenant that we never upheld anyway.

Free of all the old ways of doing things.  The old ways of worship.  The old ways of sacrifice.  The old ways of judgment.

And God himself, in Jesus, invokes a New Covenant.  With moral laws that haven’t changed, but the ways we honor them have.

We honor them now “Loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself.”

We honor them with repentance.

We honor them with forgiving others as we have been forgiven.

And we honor them with Holy Communion.  Eucharist.  Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving because we never had to pay the price for the generations of promises broken.

Thanksgiving because we never even had to take the oath to pay.

Thanksgiving because God loves us so much that he gave his very self for us, just so we might love him in return.

Do you see it?

It’s all right there in front of us.

And it is very good.

Reflect:   Read the Passion of our Lord today (John 18:1 – 19:42) and place yourself in the story as Barabbas.  Give thanks to God for sending his only Son to take your place!

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we can never, ever thank you enough for the sacrifices you’ve made for us.  But we thank you for never giving up on us!  We thank you for loving us even when we fail to love you in return.  Help us to be more like you!  Send us your Spirit of Love to empower us to share your love with all your creation.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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