If I could offer you a choice: between a savior who tells you to return hate with love, or a savior who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil- if I could give you a choice, which one would you choose?
If you could choose: between a savior who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a savior who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains- which one would you choose?
If you had a choice: between a savior who promises you a better life and the end of suffering, or a savior who promises you a life of cross-bearing- which one would it be?
Who would you bet on?
A savior who refuses to be a victim, or a savior who refuses to be anything but?
A savior who promises to liberate the poor or a savior who becomes poor?
A savior who promises to turn the clock back to the time you were most happy, or a
savior who speaks of a future where everything is new and unfamiliar and turned upside down?
Which one would you choose? Which one really?
I have a friend; he likes to think of himself as something of a prophet, an activist, an agitator. He’s the sort of guy who can string together words like proletariat, bourgeois and globalization and do so with a straight face.
He’s the kind of guy who’s always talking about the Revolution coming.
In terms of appearance, he is equal parts Che Guevara, Rob Reiner and a leprechaun. He’s the kind of righteously angry activist that in earlier generations would’ve been called a hippie, a bohemian, a Red. Today, you’d just say he’s a coffee-shop kind of guy, MoveOn.org/Occupy Wall Street kind of guy.
He likes to hang out in eccentric coffee shops and smokey, out-of-the-way pubs, and between sips and drags- and with his balding white head wrapped up in some sort of scarf- he likes to talk about the Revolution coming.
About the poor rising up. About leaders being ousted.
About the system being taken back.
You all have friends like this too, right?
Every conversation with him is the same. At first you’re impressed by the authors he can quote, by his grasp of issues and by his diversity of knowledge. And always at some later point in the conversation you start to wonder exactly what newspapers this guy reads and exactly what’s in that cup he’s drinking from? What’s he smoking?
He’s eccentric. But once you know him his perspective is easy to understand. He does humanitarian work in the developing world. It’s the kind of vocation that has frustration and tragedy built into it. And that, I think, explains his frequent rants and bull-sessions.
Every day he sees what doesn’t work and every day he’s reminded of who doesn’t care. He works in places where the system is broken, where ideals give way to brute reality and where good intentions don’t go far enough.
One of my conversations with him, not too long ago- the smoke hung heavy in the air between us. Some kind of world music was beating in the background around us. We’d both just been lamenting the many ills in the world, and my we had been ranting about how hard it is to get people’s attention, how hard it is to get people to care.
When suddenly in a critical tone of voice my friend said to me: ‘It must be hard for you…being a pastor.”
And I thought at first he was baiting me to defend my faith or Jesus or all of Christianity but he wasn’t. He was pushing me to defend you. Christians.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
And he said something about how most Christians just want a savior who will bless them or comfort them or answer their prayers. But they don’t want a savior they have to follow very far.
“So you don’t think Jesus is relevant?” I asked.
And with a philosopher’s air he said: “No, the problem’s not with Jesus. The problem’s that so many Christians choose something else.”
If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, the raw reality of Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.
If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think Herod.
Instead of collaborating, you could turn within and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.
A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.
Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either criminals or freedom fighters. At least one of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Zealot, Simon.
The Zealots believed a time was coming when God would break into history and rid the Promised Land of the Roman invaders. And they believed their violence was in harmony with the violence God was about to wreak very soon.
Barabbas is a Zealot, and the fact that his crimes were famous probably means he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover. It’s likely too that Barabbas’ name and deeds were better known in Jerusalem than Jesus’ own. It’s even possible that Barabbas had a larger following than did Jesus of Nazareth.
Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices available to him. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Alternatively, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds. Usually, Pilate did both.
That Pilate even offers to release Barabbas, a known revolutionary, shows that Pilate doesn’t actually expect the chief priests to push the charges against Jesus any further. Zealots like Barabbas wanted to assassinate the Jewish elites too.
Pilate expects the chief priests’ jealousy of Jesus to be outweighed by their fear of violent radicals like Barabbas. That the chief priests refuse to relent on Jesus shows that they understand how Jesus poses a different kind of threat.
So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.
They’re both named “Jesus,” which means ‘God saves’ or ‘Savior.’
The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means ‘son of the Father.’ The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’
They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be free. Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two ‘Jesus-es.’
‘Which would you choose?’ Pilate asks them.
Which ‘Savior’ do you want?
Barabbas promises he can change the world by changing who’s in charge of it. Barabbas promises everything will be better if only we get rid of Pilate and the
Priests and Rome.
Barabbas asks his people to take up arms.
Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.
Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The reality is that they probably didn’t have to try very hard.
One morning we were sitting down drinking coffee together. My friend was only half paying attention. He was rattling off his litany of the world’s ills while doing some kind of Tai Chi in his chair to music that was playing only in his head.
You all have friends like this, right?
Distracted, he was talking about the need for Revolution, about the need to change the System- to get rid of the people at the Top, to throw out the people in charge. Sensing that we were heading down a familiar rabbit hole- one I didn’t want to venture down that particular morning- I asked him, something that for some reason I hadn’t asked him before.
“Then why do you choose to do what you do?”
His arms didn’t stop their Tai Chi movements back and forth, but he cocked his head to the side, like he didn’t follow my meaning.
“If you’re all about Revolution and changing the System, then why do you do what you do? Small business development, advocacy, community organizing: these things take time. They’re small steps. You spend all your time with people on the bottom.”
And he smiled, like I had just outed the man behind the mask.
And he said: “Because just changing who’s at the top doesn’t really change anything.
If you really want to change the world, people need to be transformed.”
If I gave you a choice…
Would you choose a savior who butts in on your marriage and your money, who forces you to look into the mirror and own up to your own brokenness, who says you have to try and understand those you don’t like, who says you’ve got to love those who don’t like you, who says you’ve got to forgive and forgive and forgive.
Or, would you choose a savior who promises to leave the rest of your life alone and just answer the one prayer you have in your life?
Which would you choose?
A savior who will change only the pain in your life and leave the “good” alone, or a savior determined to change everything?
Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesus-es. Pick one, Pilate says.
Barabbas says ‘I can give you the life you want.’
But Jesus says ‘I can show you the life God wants.’
Barabbas believes governments and their armies are the tiller of history.
But Jesus believes the future can be moved by a Cross and the hearts that are
changed by it.
Had Pilate known the crowds would choose Barabbas, he probably never would have given them a choice.
But the choice is with us all the time.