Concerning Barabbas

Cir. June 17, 2001

Edited excerpt from a draft of letter to the pastor of Grace United Methodist Church of Atlanta

I would like to make a personal tribute to Grace, for it was through the mouth of its product, AG in a student sermon to the church, that I was finally able to conceive of the iconic image of Jesus’ love for all, i.e., for the worst. According to young AG's inspiration at the time (and I think he may have since actually repudiated this image due to a dogmatic concern of his partly Calvinist "infection"), Jesus, upon his death, indeed goes to hell, to its pit, and takes the Judas from the torment of burning aloneness, and brings him out.

Inspired by that picture, I continue for my part in having Jesus’s death occur at the very instant of that of Judas so that for the first time in history, two beings would stand before God at the same time, and not entirely alone, and that is when Jesus took the hand of his erstwhile disciple and enemy and made him look into his own (Jesus’) face, while Jesus alone would face the father. Such an image can be inspirational for the Wesleyan!

And it affected me in this wise: to imagine the greatest human depiction of this love of God for all humans, namely his unmentioned rescue of Barabbas, the criminal rejected by his own people and turned over to the gentile scourge. The picture is that of a world of natural laws and inertia, such that it is not possible to change course unless that downward spiral, as we might call it, is changed, but that means that someone must give up his or her own energy in order that the life of another might be change, and even reversed. Now Barabbas cannot possibly change his own course, for the only thing now is utter despondency in facing death, and he is not even under the possible care of a contracted God (for Whom he is no longer a son of Abraham and thus no longer deserving some consideration beyond that due the gentiles, who are morally dung). He is like McVeigh, being jeered by his enemies as dead and gone and good riddance. This man has no contractual prerogatives on his own, for he is like a gentile. Thus he cannot pray. And so there is absolutely nothing but total and utter despair. And on top of all of this is the self realization that he was only getting what he had given to others, namely death, and so that it was perfectly just. And so he had no claim whatsoever; it would have been impossible for him to hope or even imagine a rescue, enough to be willing to call upon God or man, much less upon Jesus.

And then suddenly, the door is opened and Barabbas is paraded before the mob and Pilate and some lunatic standing before Pilot, and suddenly the crowds are cheering that Barabbas should be released, and before you know it Barabbas has been kicked down from center stage into the ranks of the mob and is free to go his way. Suddenly, without warning, the jailers simply open the jail door and kick him out.

According to Greek tradition, Barabbas entered upon the Way and died a saint in the church. Perhaps he was so dazed that he stumbled in among a bunch of his followers and stayed there a few days until he had learned about what had really happened, and then to hear assertions that this man, named Jesus, had risen from the dead.

Thus Jesus, known now as the Man-God, has conducted himself ritually as the Righteous King of the Jews, namely he had taught a trust in God which was called non-violence and at the same time taught every man to be true to his duty, and this is what he did in the case of Barabbas. At the time preordained for the rescue of Barabbas, Jesus is betrayed and comes to find himself in the position of being the exchange for Barabbas, and so he rescues the out-cast Jew (supreme example of the sacredness of the Jew in the contractual eye of God, i.e., every Jew is Mine, and may not be turned over to the dogs). And so he fulfills his duty of thinking first of his people in that he teaches them the faith of nonviolence (God will act!) and he rescues a lost Jew. The image is masterful.

Now the inertia of sin has been broken, for Barabbas was given a positive charge, namely not only in the physical rescue, but in the spiritual upon the message of the resurrection and thus of the power to make good to Barabbas this his second chance.

The state of the world apart from Christ might be conceived of as karmic, sort of like a pendulum that swings back and forth, so that slap begets slap in return which begets slap to that slap, and before you know it it is out of memory as to the first slap. And so the only hope is to believe that it makes sense not to seek for your personal advantage in the circumstances of your existence, but to forego that in the faith that it will work to your own good, but only by virtue of the fact that your action and your self denial was given to the community, and so our reward will not be by right of conquest and achievement, but rather, as all, by a sharing of the spoils together and according to need. And so it is as forceful as physical necessity itself, and so all you could do is just to suffer in silence and wait, perhaps eons, until it might begin to get better. A very sad picture which arises primarily through the eastern sages.

But now come the Lord Jesus and though perfect and thus entitled to live forever was willing to give up the right to live forever for the sake of the rescue of all of the humans all together, and as iconized in Barabbas, for the undeserved and unexpected rescue of this ordinary sort of good-for-nothing convict, like plucking someone out of the middle of death row, and letting him go without even needing to warn him of the consequences of his predicament, for this is clear to him without guise.

Now the message that goes out from this in the teaching of the Wesleyan is this: all men are subject to the grace of Good and should expect it and be alert to it, for it will come to all people who hear word of it. God will touch you in some way and you are to respond in this way, you say “Lord Jesus, save me” and go limp, so to speak, go with the moment of your present predicament in total peace. Salvation is at hand, and the individual need only believe it to enjoy it, for it is promised in the word of God. For if Jesus could rescue Barabbas for human eyes, he could also rescue Judas for angelic eyes, and he most certainly could rescue me from this moment when I am willing to cry for him. And what divides the Christian so much from the fatalism of the Hindu despondency is the eagerness with which I turn from that moment on, in all perceivable opportunities, and reflect, to the limit of my strength, the same love in that situation as Jesus exemplified in the case of mine, through the fact of Barabbas. Therefore we become new creatures immediately, by the working of the Holy Spirit in our beings at that moment, and so we go out as new creatures in this hope, and thus while we act as though everything were dependent upon us, we pray as though everything were dependent upon God, and simply don’t worry about things any more, not even about worry. And thus now our fruit follows as natural products of a new disposition toward giving without counting and the opportunities provided to render this fruit.

It’s amazing really. We come to the peace of the eastern non-being a la Buddhism, and remain fully charged with joy, for we follow the Risen Savior of Barabbas, the Righteous King of the Jews.

By the way, if the Greek tradition is true, then I would bet, if I were a betting man, that Barabbas was not converted until much later. At first, even if he believed the resurrection story, he would not have any reason to think that he were special, for that could have been simple, random choice, and he happened to be the guy who got a boost. I think it was much later when he saw evidence of change in the lives of people who professed belief in that story of resurrection, that he was impressed, but perhaps still, even at his death, he did not realize that Jesus had come into this world with one central purpose in mind, to die for a no-count thief by the name of Barabbas who had been concocted by the sin of the world.

And so in the same way the story of Barabbas can inspire all men, even the Hindu and Buddhist, to realized that Barabbas had been anticipated and Jesus had been sent with the express command to rescue him, and to do so in the human frame of God, the Man-God, in non-violence.

Accordingly the story of Barabbas has iconic truth, namely it is a accurate portrayal of the heart of God, and in this sense can move people to follow Christ, people who would otherwise have no hope. It can be presented perhaps as a parable. It may be one of the legends that people dreamed up in order to inspire faith, stories whose truth arose in character and spirit, and in the faith in, and thus manifestation of, the spirit of Christ himself. This is the justification for the “preacher’s story”; it is intentionally doctored in order to pursue faith in Christ. It is consistent with the character of Christ, i.e., loving all people, and it encourages other people to trust in Christ.

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