Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.
So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do[a] with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
So we find ourselves in the kangaroo court of imperial Rome. This court is less like fair or restorative justice as we would hope for, but more akin to the final vote in a reality TV show. “Who shall we release from the courts today without charge?” an imaginary presenter might say. “Jesus or Barabbas? Go online, text or call us to register your vote!”
The theologian Tom Wright describes Jesus’ predicament as “the death of someone caught up between the upper millstone of local trouble and the lower millstone of imperial Rome” *. The religious leaders have already made their mind up; they want Jesus dead. Pilate offers some resistance to local demands but is ultimately more interested in maintaining civil obedience. He didn’t want his superiors breathing down his neck. The outcome was inevitable.
Amidst the pressure of these two millstones, we see Jesus treading a demanding and difficult path. It is not just the path of one more local “military messiah” campaigning for revolution. This is the unique route that God has mapped out for Jesus – a route where “the gate is narrow and the road is hard” (Matthew 7.14).
Amidst the wider narrative of the Passion story Jesus sets us a challenge. Jesus is the perfect model of how to live as a human being. In doing so, he invites us to traverse a demanding but bespoke walk of discipleship. This road will cross through pressure points which could easily divert us into looking for easier terrain.
His challenge is to not give way to the pressure. He reminds us that he has already walked that path. His promise to us is that we do not walk alone. For this is the path that leads to life.
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that you walked the lonely road that made new life possible for us. We thank you that you have placed us in unique circumstances where we can exhibit your reality. Please give us the strength of the Holy Spirit to walk the line when the going gets tough. Please extend to us your grace when we stumble. Please help us to regain our stride. Amen
*Mark for Everybody by Tom Wright page 207 (SPCK 2014).
The Rev’d Daniel Harris, Minister with the Rochdale, Bury and North Manchester Missional Partnership.