by Martin Kuhrt
When Pilate was addressing the crowd, with Jesus standing before him, he was sitting on the judge’s seat, just outside the Praetorium. This contained both his own Jerusalem residence and a Roman military barracks. It was strategically situated next to the Temple mount.
It is likely that Barabbas, who had been convicted of insurrection, would have been incarcerated in the vicinity, where he could have been well guarded prior to his planned death march carrying his cross from there to the site of crucifixion.
Roman authorities often forced crucifixion victims to make their own cross and carry it to the site. Jesus, of course took his place and the Way of Sorrows, the walk to Golgotha, started there, with Jesus quite possibly carrying the cross Barabbas had made for himself.
This meditation, an imaginary monologue, is inspired by an insight from my colleague Kate Watt, the children and families’ worker, at Church of the Holy Spirit. It is based on Matthew’s account of the court scene and imagines Barabbas’ thoughts while he is held in a cell near to where the crowd gathered outside the Praetorium.
While he might not have heard Pilate speaking, the sound could have reached him when the crowd roar out his name after Pilate had asked if Jesus or he should be released according to the Passover custom. When Pilate then asked the crowd what should be done to Jesus, they shouted loudly “crucify him, crucify him”.
Perhaps, all Barabbas heard was his own name, and the words “crucify him”, shouted repeatedly. Perhaps he thought the mob were calling for his death until Pilate’s soldiers released him and told him Jesus was being crucified instead of him, and that he could go free?
As surely as my name is Barabbas, I hate the Romans.
I hate them because they look down on us like we’re nothing. I hate them for their arrogance, their cruelty. I hate them because every time I see an occupier strutting around it reminds me of what we have become as a nation. Weak, corrupt, compromised, pathetic. I hate what they’ve done to us. Some have sold their souls to tax us for them, growing fat on their treachery.
Weren’t we once a proud nation? The country of David, Solomon, Judas Maccabaeus, reduced to simpering collection of corrupt priests, puppet rulers, loathsome collaborators and cowering masses – sheep without a shepherd.
I hate them for what I’ve become. I never wanted my soul to be corroded by sticking daggers into the hearts of mother’s sons far from home. I never wanted to spend my life creeping in the shadows, always looking over my shoulder, suspicious of everyone. I gave up the chance to love, to marry, to bring up children – and for what? For a brief moment I thought our people would rise up. I dreamt of glory, but the cowards and the traitors did their work, and I’m left feeling a fool for thinking I could make any difference.
And now it’s come to this. I’m sitting here in a dark, foul cell, forced to nail these two planks of wood together, making the cross on which I’m to be crucified this day. The ultimate humiliation – having to produce the instrument of my own miserable death. I can hear the grim reaper’s hellish laugh. Romans certainly know how to add insult to injury.
And the worst thing? God feels so far away. I thought I could please him in my zeal and confidence. When I was younger, I thought he would surely help me to do his will and save our people. Yet all I’ve done is sully my hands with blood and brought more misery on the very people I was trying to fight for. My own sins haunt me now. The boys I trained in violence, the ways I dishonoured my father, the money I stole. I hope there is no resurrection, for now I fear my cynical heart and blood-stained soul will land me where my worm won’t die and the fire of my shame will never go out.
Maybe that preacher from Galilee was right after all. Maybe the true battle is fought differently, maybe it is possible to love your enemy, maybe there is another way. Here I am, torturing myself with regrets. Barabbas, you fool, you’ve left it too late. You’re going to die and no one will weep for you and you can’t blame them.
I’m going mad with fear. I can hear the crowd outside. They are shouting my name “Barabbas”. Why are they shouting my name? I can hear them roaring “crucify him, crucify him”. Oh, this is more than I can bear! Cannot the mob give me rest in my final hours? Why does everyone hate me now? Death, come quickly. The people are calling for my blood and I deserve it.
What’s this? Footsteps. The cell door opens…the light hurts my eyes. What? The cross I made is needed for another? Is this a cruel joke? Pilate has decreed I am to go free? No, that’s not right. I’m to die. Even the people were shouting for my death just now.
What? You mean I’m mistaken – they are crucifying someone else in my place? I’m to go free? How can it be? This is my cross. I made it. I’m condemned to hang on it. I deserve it. The preacher from Galilee? He is taking my place? No, that can’t be. He’s not a murderer! He’s not corrupted his soul like I have! He’s being crucified instead of me? I’m being given life, and freedom? You mean the crowd was shouting for him to be crucified, not me? So, the hatred was for him, the mob wanted me to be released. I’ve got my life back…but he’s paid the cost?
I thought I would die today, and in a way I have. The world is not a just place. The guilty go free and the innocent die.
Yet why do I feel a strange sense of hope? Does God love me after all? Am I forgiven? Do I get to have a new start? But what of this man who has died in my place? I know he was innocent, yet he takes my punishment. Can such love really die?
Martin Kuhrt is Vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Aylesbury