Palm Sunday: Choosing Barabbas

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Matthew 21:1–11; 27:11–26

Last Sunday we begin to take a turn in a slightly different direction in our sermons as we are preparing for Holy week. And we talked about the story of the golden calf, and about God’s mercy and justice in response to that sin, and then specifically this idea of generational sin — sin that gets inherited, in a sense or passed down, because it’s in our family or environment — it’s just around us, and we may not even realize it.

Sometimes we’re perpetuating it, it’s sin that we’re committing and we’re caught up in, but other times it’s sin that’s been perpetrated against us, and we’re the victim of it. So we’re wounded, and there needs to be awareness, first of all. Because if it isn’t acknowledged, then it can’t be healed, and there can’t be reconciliation in our relationships.

But in the story this morning for Palm Sunday, a different kind of sin is highlighted. It isn’t so much generational sin, and it isn’t necessarily even just individual sin — though it certainly includes those two. What we see in the Palm Sunday episode, and then in the passage I read a moment ago, which takes place only a few days later, is the showcasing of what I think we can just call social sin.

Individual sin: this is where we tend to live. This is what we assume we’re talking about. I do something that’s wrong. I break a commandment. We disobey God. We do something unkind to our neighbor. We fail to do something that we’re supposed to do. It’s why we pray in our prayer of confession, for things done, and things left undone, when we ask for forgiveness.

Maybe it’s dishonesty or apathy or greediness, impatience, hurtful words, just being inconsiderate or self-absorbed, gossiping — whatever it might be, there are many things. But everything I’ve described is kind of symptomatic of a deeper problem.

Because when we imagine sin at merely an individual level, we do tend to think of it in terms of morality, rule-following, or just law-abiding behavior. And yes, there are commandments and laws from God in the Bible about how to live. And those laws are necessarily, just like laws are necessary in society.

But here’s where we get a little bit of confusion when it comes to laws. God is not first and foremost concerned about our willingness to obey laws. That might sound surprising, but it’s true. The most important thing for God, and this is what we see from the Garden in Genesis onward, is not the commandments themselves, but the relationship that commandments are intended to protect and sustain.

Above all, it’s about the relationship, and a covenant relationship at that — not merely a contractual agreement, in which there are terms that can breached, and then there are consequences, but a covenantal relationship. Which is to say, it’s relationship that does not merely depend on each party’s performance or fulfillment of the agreement — it’s bigger and stronger than that. It’s based on more than that.

This past Wednesday, we just finished the five and final week of the Marriage Series, the Marriage class that we’ve been having at church. We had a great group of 20–25 couples each week, and one of the things we talked about was precisely this idea of covenant and how a marriage doesn’t stand on just the ability for my spouse to meet my expectations.

There would be no room for joy, for freedom, for playfulness, surprise… I wouldn’t see it as a gift. It would be more like an arrangement or an agreement that’s all about what each of us is getting, rather than about enjoying and going deeper into our friendship and communion and intimacy together — and that’s the point of it. The point of it is the relationship itself.

And the relationship, again, requires nurture and care. We need some guidelines, and maybe even some rules. They’re helpful. Because they protect. They safeguard. But they’re not the point. Or the purpose. The purpose is the other person and the love that we get to share.

So that too is what’s going on in the Bible: It’s the dramatic story of God’s relationship with us, and our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other, that culminates during Holy Week.

So what is sin, finally? Sin is disordered relationship. We’ve said before here at Saint Peter’s that sin is disordered desire. Disordered worship. Trusting in something other than God, to give me a sense of security and satisfaction, and certainty, that in fact, only God can provide it.

And the reason that only God can provide it, is because God’s the only thing that’s going to last. And the only way for us to last, so to speak, for us to have life that is good, that is abundant, and that is everlasting, is to be in relationship and connection to God. This is what Holy Week is all about.

Now, I began talking about sin — not just individual sin but generational sin and social sin. And I think of the David and Bathsheba story as a quick illustration of this. It’s a story that we talked about some last summer. But basically, King David, commits adultery and murder. And tradition tended to say that Psalm 51 is David’s — it takes him a while — but it’s finally his prayer of repentance and confession. But there’s this curious line in that prayer that I’ve struggled to fully understand, and I’m sure explanation that I don’t know…

It’s the line in verse 4, which says, “against you and you alone have a sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” And I think there’s a sense in which that’s true. But we know it’s also not the complete truth. Because David also sinned against his whole people! Certainly against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, but even the nation of Israel itself and arguably every generation thereafter until Christ.

Things do not really get better for the Jewish people from David onward. Slow but surely, and sometimes rapidly, though there were some later ups and downs, the trajectory is generally south from David on to Jesus. The lesson being that, especially when you have power, and all of us have some degree of power and influence, however small — it may just be in your family or workplace, but we all affect stuff — the lesson is, there is no such thing as merely individual sin. Our sin, our action or inaction, on the basis of disordered desire, disordered worship, disordered relationship — has consequences that affect other people. Our sin affects our relationship with others, and our sin affects our relationship with God and with others.

I like the image of a web, a network that connects all of us, that sin can travel. It’s like a virus. Once it gets going in one place, it’s going to spread quickly and touch everything. And this is what David does, and this what God takes on and what God allows to happen to Jesus during Holy Week.

This week, I was stopped in my tracks when I didn’t just hear about but I saw images on my twitter feed showing the victims of the chemical weapons attack that took place in Syria. It killed 80 people at least, 26 of whom were children. Many more have been affected by the gas.

I saw video footage, and there were children and babies in the mix. One man in particular who had twin 9-month holds, but killed, both in his arms, there was coverage of the burial.

The U.S. has already retaliated, but lest we too quickly think of ourselves as the good guys, just remember, two weeks ago a US airstrike in Mosul killed 200 civilians. 200. This is what happens in a sinful world. Here’s what someone wrote on Facebook, in response to these events:

Friends, is anyone else sick to their stomach about what’s been happening in Syria? If I can be honest, it’s this level of evil that really challenges my belief in God. I mean, how do we maintain faith in a God who’s very nature and character are defined by attributes like love, light, goodness, beauty (some might add protector or provider) while the Syrian people experience such relentless and extensive devastation? How do Christians reconcile the mass murder of chemical warfare, the piles of dead bodies, the advancement of terrorism, the displacement of entire nations, with an omnipotent, omniscient, relational God? Where is justice for Syria? Where was their Protector? I can’t even begin to make sense of it all. Perhaps this post is too heavy for Facebook, and maybe I will regret it later, but — real talk, y’all. What are we going to do? We cannot look the other way.

I find this sentiment, this quote, this line of thinking, completely relatable and understandable. I share many of this person’s feelings and reactions. The news of these events, and the pictures in particular, brought me to tears.

I don’t tell y’all this to be emotionally manipulative. But during Holy Week, during this time of the Christian year more than any other, we have to let ourselves feel the weight of sin in our world. We have to take time to appreciate the gravity and the significance of Jesus’s final days leading up to his death, and what his death means for our lives! That’s why I share this.

“From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.” ― Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ

Sin is not, “no big deal.” It’s just individual. There’s no such thing as merely individual sin. It always affects other people somehow. Always. No man, no woman, is an island. Even the stuff no one knows about, that you think doesn’t hurt anyone — I can assure you that, even in the smallest way, it does. And when you add it all up, socially, it leads to things, it ultimately produces violence on a massive scale — and that’s why, in the quote I just read, Rutledge calls our fallen predicament “irremediable” — there’s no remedy, save for divine intervention.

Ok, so the last thing I want to focus in on, for just a few minutes, is once again the Story of Holy Week itself.

One of the most astonishing things about this day in the season of Lent and at the beginning of Holy Week is how on earth the crowds that gather to praise Jesus’s name and welcome him into the city during his “triumphal entry” is that we know, just a few days later on good Friday, another crowd, maybe some of the same crowd, are turned on him and demand not only his death but the release of another infamous prisoner.

It was only for these kinds of politically threatening crimes that such a terrible punishment as crucifixion was reserved.

Would we have chosen Barabbas too? Are our own desires not also disordered, in such a way that we too would want to choose Barabbas?

Jesus enters the city in a way that looks like he’s a royal, political figure, at first! He sends people ahead. The crowds hear that he’s coming. He doesn’t turn them away. He knows he’s going to get their attention, and he accepts that he seems to also accept their praise.

In fact, this really looks like a pre-planned political demonstration. And what’s really interesting, is that historians think another procession was happening at the same time, on the other side of town. This is the year 30 CE or AD, at the time of the Passover, by the way, so it’s actually a very precise date. And on the other side of Jerusalem from Jesus, there would have been an imperial parade led by some of Rome’s elite generals and military leaders, being cheered and welcomed by another crowd. And Jesus knew this! But his procession looks a bit different…

Because he’s riding in on a donkey. Is he a king? If he is, what kind? A violent kind? A revolutionary kind? Is he trying to overthrow Rome? Is he a threat? Is Jesus undermining their power? We know the answers to these questions is yes he’s a king, and he even says so when Pilate questions him, but no, he’s not a real threat, and Pilate even recognizes this! It’s the religious leaders and the crowds that force Pilate to have Jesus crucified, because he begins to see their agitation and potential rioting as a threat, rather than Jesus.

And keep in mind that for the average person, Jewish or otherwise, living in and around Jerusalem at this time, Rome was the enemy. They were hated. They were exploiting the peasants in the area, displacing them from their land, and taking whatever they had for themselves. And who enabled all of this? The leaders of the Temple. They functioned as Rome’s collaborators, but they did so in a very underhanded way, trying to appear righteous in the people’s eyes in the process.

This group of leaders, the Scribes and the Priests, had already tried Jesus and found him guilty of blasphemy: for forgiving sins, healing on the Sabbath, considering himself the Messiah, and those kind of things. Not to mention, he cursed the Temple, drove money changers out of it, and all that — because it had become a corrupt place of negotiating deals with the Roman government that took advantage of the people!

Above all, this group wanted power. They wanted to cozy up to the Roman Empire so that their interests would be protected. So that they could remain wealthy, secure, and maintain an elite status — and even be admired for this status.

But there was another group. They were called the Zealots and Barabbas was probably one of them. These were the people who wanted a revolution, and for good reason. So once they learned Jesus wasn’t a Zealot, they had no use for him. While Barabbas was like a hero. See, on Palm Sunday, there was still hope that maybe Jesus could deliver them. By the end of the week though, it was clear he could not. Listen to this quote from sociologist Rene Girard, which I think describes this phenomenon of choosing Barabbas quite well:

Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them. ― René Girard

See, when our desires our disordered, like the crowd, Jesus doesn’t give us what we want, so we choose a different a Messiah, a different Caesar, a different lord, a different Savior — we choose Barabbas! And maybe you and I haven’t committed murder, adultery, war crimes, or anything awful ourselves, but we participate and take part in those things — in a web of disordered desire.

Listen to these words of Scottish theologian and preacher James Stewart bring me back from the abstractions of evil to the problem of me, to self-examination.

“For the things that crucify Christ and wreck the whole world are the common sins of every day — self-centeredness, pride, apathy, cynicism, slackness, unkindness, every temptation put in another’s path, every wasted opportunity, every pitiful compromise of which we are ashamed — these are the nails and the spear-thrust and the cross. And will anyone deny, with Jesus hanging there, that sin is the critical enemy, the most dangerous insatiable thing in the world, and that they personally need to be forgiven?”

We are sinners, desperate for the mercy of God. We choose Barabbas, and our disordered desires send Jesus to the cross.

Now we know that’s not the end of the story! But it’s where we’re going to stop today. God loves us too much to let us go on following the way of Barabbas, or the way of the Pharisees, or the way of Pilate. But that love costs God everything.

So may we see the weight, the severity, the devastating nature, of not just our individual sin, or even generational sin, but especially our collective social sin that sends Jesus to the cross, and may we mourn that this week. May it prompt self-examination and repentance, and we await resurrection. Let’s pray.


Originally published at William A. Walker III.