Not This Man but Barabbas

by Fr Paul D. Scalia

Not This Man but Barabbas by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1520 [Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries, UK]

In their respective narratives of our Lord’s Passion, all four Gospels mention the crowd’s election of Barabbas over Jesus. That choice comes at the end of Pontius Pilate’s half-hearted attempt to free Christ. It is the moment of the crowd’s definitive rejection of Christ and embrace of evil.

The whole account captures human sinfulness in just a few verses. Pilate puts before the crowd first “Jesus Barabbas” (Mt 27:17) – that is, “Jesus, son of the father” – and then Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father. The crowd must choose either the real Son of the Father or His counterfeit, the true Sonship or the false. Its choice of the counterfeit and false summarizes our sinfulness.

In the liturgies for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the congregation cries out to free Barabbas. In playing that role in the drama, the People of God are also making a confession of sorts. Because we have indeed chosen Barabbas. We have preferred the false son of the father to the Son of God. As the Israelites once “exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bull” (Ps 106:20), so we have opted for a pseudo-sonship in place of “the glory to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18) We’ve elected to be children in the spirit of Barabbas, not of Christ.

Who is it that we’ve chosen? Barabbas is variously described as a rebel, a robber, and a murderer. These indictments are not mutually exclusive. Each one sheds light on a dimension of our sinfulness. They also follow neatly one after another. First, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are rebels who must lay down our arms.” Our insistence on absolute autonomy, to be a law unto ourselves – to be like God (Gen 3:5) – cannot exist within God’s order. It is open rebellion.

We are likewise robbers. We have arrogated God’s gifts and glory to ourselves. All that we are and have is a gift from God meant to be given. But we have kept these things as our own possessions, for our own purposes and glory. We even boast as if they are our own accomplishments.

All of this makes us murderers as well. God is the final rebuke and stop to our rebellion and theft. We cannot continue if He is in the picture. To preserve our autonomy and glory, we must be done with Him. The modern world is this truth writ large. But each of us lives it personally.

The choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ really comes down to the choice between self-preservation and self-gift. It is the fundamental choice that our Lord articulates repeatedly and that He returns to shortly before His Passion: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25; cf. Mt 16:25; Lk 17:33)

Barabbas is the image of the man who loves his life and seeks to preserve it at all costs. Rebellion, robbery, and murder are just different ways he’s sought to keep his petty little kingdom secure. On the other hand, our Lord – beaten, scourged, and crowned with thorns – is the man who hates His life in this world. He has lost everything: power, possessions, health, dignity, friends, etc. Yet He knows that this loss is not the end but the beginning – the sowing of a seed.

We have followed Barabbas in embracing this disordered self-preservation. We could call it pride, but that word in our culture typically implies a proper self-assertion and demand for recognition. Although it can be those things, more often than not our pride – that preservation of our lives, comfort, and reputation above all else – is not high and strong, but peevish and weak. In the interest of self-preservation, the Apostles run away and abandon our Lord. To preserve his life, Peter flinches at the questions of a servant girl and denies Christ. To preserve his trivial reign, Pilate hands Christ over to be crucified.

This inordinate fear of losing our autonomy, this grasping to preserve our lives, is the taproot of all sin. We lash out in anger because we sense a threat to our reputation and ego. We greedily snatch up more and more things to protect ourselves, to secure our borders. We slouch into sloth to avoid God and preserve our time as ours. And so on. Every sin has this characteristic of self-preservation.

Jesus Christ is the true Son of the Father. His self-emptying is both the means of our redemption and the pattern to live out our sonship: “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. . .becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8) The Christian’s continuing conversion requires the repeated rejection of Barabbas and embrace of our Lord. Holy Week is the time to deepen that conversion, to rededicate ourselves to the true Son.

“Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” (Mt 27:17) In the past we have cried out for Barabbas, so that we too could live that false sonship. Now, we repent and cry out for Christ, that we may be freed to follow the true Son of the Father and walk in His path of self-giving.

[source: The Catholic Thing]

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5 Responses to Not This Man but Barabbas

  1. E M Lowden says:

    The problem with Fr. Scalia’s piece here is that it is predicated on a bad translation of Scripture. No authorized version of the original Greek calls Barabbas “Jesus”. This is an insertion in certain manuscripts mostly dug up during the “back to the sources” movement of the 20th century. It appears neither in the Vulgate nor the Douay-Rheims, meaning the Church (the Eastern Orthodox too) deemed it incorrect.

    It presents a very serious theological and exegetical problem, as we can see here, so much so that several Church Fathers (I note Fr. Scalia doesn’t cite a single one, nor any Catholic theologians, only the Protestant pop-theologian C.S. Lewis) either ignored the manuscript tradition that uses the name “Jesus Barabbas” or commented disapprovingly of it.

    While, therefore, one might see some useful lesson here, the fact that the translation is faulty and the custom he refers to dates only from the 1970s, makes this pretty far from “Pure & Simple Catholicism”.

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  2. Reblogged this on Zero Lift-Off and commented:
    I see how Barabbas was significantly to be seen as a son of the crooked world system, or “ways of the world” while the “Holy One Jesus” was contrasting or clashing if you will with not only the false Son Barabbas but with the “ways of the world” and the whole world system. But more profound in all of this is not so much the semantics of a few words being totally and perfectly translated, but instead that here as Peter had done, when he denied Christ Jesus; the whole world system and the people of the world denied Him at that moment when Pilate washed his hands of Him as did the world with him; making us all equally guilty and carrying sin to our own graves, while He Jesus Christ had none, not even a curse word; because Jesus was not of this “crooked world” so the only Truth that can be drawn from this confrontation is that Jesus rejects the sinful world in this departure sentencing and the people that live by it instead of by the Father’s will! And therefore the world or those people in it then as now were, hands down wanting to wash their hands of “Him,” just as Pilate did; so thus they sealed the deal of the fallen world and all in it being doomed outright; while Jesus the Lamb of God would be raised from it; pure as the driven snow!

    This had to be the only way it could be completed, rejection going both ways then the Resurrection would be in the offing until the end of the world to any who will turn to Jesus Christ as their personal savior; as He would be absolutely and purely the only means of forgiveness of sin and the resurrection to eternal life with the Father, our Maker. Like cutting the cord, then the testing out of all souls began.

    I have always felt that this can be readily seen in the Mel Gibson film The Passion of The Christ and this scene where Pilate washes his hands of the matter and basically throws Jesus to the lions in a manner of speaking, and condemns himself with Barabbas and all humans; at that point dooming all of humanity!

    So I have no problem with anything here because I visualize the event quite clearly and see the intent and significance of all actions and behavior being exactly as they “were meant to be” to clearly illustrate why and what it would mean to all humanity moving forward!

    Today I see my governments leaders or politicians not any different than those Pharisees, minions and Barabbas, as many are living in a totally narcissistic pagan way while some pretend to worship God through Jesus like a Pelosi, Biden and Harris but they don’t and are the true hypocrites as they worship this world and power with great wealth; in other words Satan. It really hasn’t changed because as back then so many if not all would deny Jesus at one time or another during their today; the same thing is happening in spades with so many living lives of luxury and decadence, usually with ill-gotten moreover gluttonous gains; the crooked ways of the world, many Barabbas’

    This is the significance of this article to me and should be for anyone rather than any splitting of hairs to get to some infinitesimally perfected interpretation! God doesn’t expect us to be rocket scientists but he only expects us to see the “Plain Truth” before our eyes and what is in our hearts; so that even “the simplest of minds can understand” what He is saying to us! I truly hope this helps you and anyone that wants to open their heart to Christ more fully and love, worship and adore Him with all their strength. I say cry for him, not only because of all the suffering He took for us, which does cause me to cry, but even more for the “Amazing Grace” and “Beauty” of His “Heart of Hearts” to love us the way He does; this is making me cry now to say this; it is the Plain Truth when we see the gift and love in our hearts and minds this way; you can’t help but cry for Him being so beautiful and kind, to we; who are so unworthy! Amen.
    God Bless you!
    Brother in Christ,
    Lawrence Morra III

    Like

  3. I’m Sorry about this duplicating, but I’ve been having a technical difficulty on my end which kept me from adjusting the initial posting I made with the newer revised version until now! I hope this adds clarification to my deepest most sincere thoughts and feelings as to precisely how I see this crucial event! If you prefer to choose one over the other and delete the close duplicate, I understand. This was vitally important to me and I had to make this change. Thank you and God Bless

    I see how Barabbas was significantly to be seen as a son of the crooked world system, or “ways of the world” while the “Holy One Jesus” was contrasting or clashing if you will with not only the false Son Barabbas but with the “ways of the world” and the whole world system. But more profound in all of this is not so much the semantics of a few words being totally and perfectly translated, but instead that here as Peter had done, when he denied Christ Jesus; the whole world system and the people of the world denied Him at that moment when Pilate washed his hands of Him as did the world with him; making us all equally guilty and carrying sin to our own graves, while He Jesus Christ had none, not even a curse word; because Jesus was not of this “crooked world” so the only Truth that can be drawn from this confrontation is that Jesus rejects the sinful world in this departure sentencing and the people that live by it instead of by the Father’s will because even with the smallest of sins we are all contaminated by the ways of the world and doomed as creatures of it! And therefore the world or those people in it then as now, were unequivocally even if unconsciously wanting to wash their hands of “Him,” just as Pilate did; so thus they too sealed the deal of the fallen world and all in it being doomed outright; while Jesus the Lamb of God would be raised from it; pure as the driven snow! Because Jesus was not part of this world; he then sets in stone the direct path to the Father by He being the only being (The Savior) that could create this bridge of Redemption that will allow us to cross the impossible chasm from oblivion to everlasting peace, by His offering to any who will believe in Him; God’s planned gift of Salvation!

    This had to be the only way it could be completed, rejection going both ways then the “Resurrection” would be in the offering until the end of the world to any who will turn to Jesus Christ as their personal Savior; as He would be absolutely and purely the only means of forgiveness of sin and the resurrection to eternal life with the Father, our Maker. Like cutting the cord, then the “testing” out of all souls began.

    I have always felt that this can be readily seen in the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of The Christ” and this scene where Pilate washes his hands both literally and figuratively of the matter and basically throws Jesus to the lions in a manner of speaking and condemns himself with Barabbas and all humans; at that point dooming all of humanity! But His death on the cross would now give us all the gift of resurrection with Him if we will accept it!

    So I have no problem with anything here because I visualize the event quite clearly and see the intent and significance of all actions and behavior being exactly as they “were meant to be” to clearly illustrate why and what it would mean to all humanity moving forward!

    Today I see my governments leaders or politicians not any different than those Pharisees, minions and Barabbas, as many are living in a totally narcissistic pagan way while some pretend to worship God through Jesus like a Pelosi, Biden and Harris but they don’t and are the true hypocrites as they worship this world and power with great wealth; in other words Satan. It really hasn’t changed because as back then so many if not all would deny Jesus at one time or another during their lives; today the same thing is happening in spades with so many living lives of luxury and decadence, usually with ill-gotten, moreover gluttonous gains; the crooked ways of the world, many Barabbas’

    This is the significance of this article to me and should be for anyone rather than any splitting of hairs to get to some infinitesimally perfected interpretation! God doesn’t expect us to be rocket scientists but he only expects us to see the “Plain Truth” before our eyes and what is in our hearts; so that even “the simplest of minds can understand” what He is saying to us! I truly hope this helps you and anyone that wants to open their heart to Christ more fully and love, worship and adore Him; with all their strength. I say cry for him, not only because of all the suffering He took for us, which does cause me to cry, but even more for the “Amazing Grace” and “Beauty” of His “Heart of Hearts” to love us the way He does; this is making me cry now to say this; it is the Plain Truth when we see the gift and love in our hearts and minds this way; you can’t help but cry for Him being so beautiful and kind, to we; who are so unworthy! Amen.
    God Bless you!
    Brother in Christ,
    Lawrence Morra III

    Like

  4. The Raven says:

    The “Jesus Barabbas” reading seems to be something new-ish that only starts appearing with the rest of the archaeologising in the twentieth century. None of the previous Greek editions include it (and I’ve even been back to the Codex Siniaticus – well worth a look) and that doesn’t include it either.

    Looking at the English translations, a few of the poppier Protestant versions use it, but neither the Jerusalem Bible nor DR include it. Mgr Knox’s version was also missing it.

    An interesting point that would more usefully fit with Fr Scalia’s argument is that Barabbas (Bar Abbas) means “Son of the Father” a name not that different from one of the titles of Our Lord.

    I suppose the objection is that the Church currently uses a version of the Greek that includes the word (albeit parenthetically) and the current ordinary-form Passiontide rites prescribed by the Church do have the congregation act the part of the chorus – they are, for the foreseeable future, the rites of the Church.

    I hope that, during my lifetime, the Church will revisit the liturgical changes of the mid-twentieth century, but I can’t say that I have any expectation that this will happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. E M Lowden says:

    Yes, it would be a very spiritually useful reflection to ask “who is Barabbas’ father?” Since we have Christ earlier contrasting the fatherhood of Abraham and the fatherhood of the Devil. The children of the Devil in this case choose one of their own – the son of the father.

    That said, we also know that Abbas is an attested name from the first century in Syria. It could merely show that the crowd chooses the world. Of course, these things have multiple layers.

    In any case, I’m not sure Fr. Scalia’s piece is completely valueless, much less heretical, especially since we live in an age dominated by counterfeit Christs who, in the words of Bishop Sheen, “clamor for social justice to cover up a lack of personal justice”.

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