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Whom do you want? Why!? And what shall I do with Jesus? These were the questions Pilate asked.
At the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing oneprisoner. At that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release to You? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew they had handed Him over because of envy.
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him." But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.
The governor said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release?" They said, "Barabbas!" Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus?" They all said to him, "Let Him be crucified!" The governor said, "Why, what evil has He done?" But they cried out all the more, saying "Let Him be crucified!"
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children." Then he released Barabbas to them.
Matthew 27:15-26 NKJV, condensed
What Evil Has He Done?
Pilate wanted to release Jesus because he truly believed Jesus was innocent of the charges against him. But the riled up crowd that had gathered outside his portico demanded a death sentence. Pilate was a Roman through and through. The crowd outside was Jewish. Pilate didn't understand them. He didn't care much for them. And the feeling was mutual. So Pilate wanted to act with haste and bid this whole affair good riddance.
Among his options was the Passover tradition, whereby he released a prisoner of their choosing. This year, it just could work to his own advantage. Pilate offered the persistent crowd a choice. Barabbas or Jesus, called the Christ? Barabbas was well-known for his vindictiveness. Some considered him a folk hero who bravely fought the Romans by inciting people to resist the foreign occupation.
This text identifies what Pilate already knew-- Jesus had been turned over to him not because he endangered the lives of his fellow Jews, but because the religious authorities were envious of Jesus. Jealous of the way people loved and responded to him. Begrudging Jesus' power to attract, heal and influence. Resenting his profound sayings, witty stories, and unconventional deeds.
It was a nasty trick Pilate played, telling them, "If you guys want to see someone who is really a danger to your nation, just look at Barabbas. I'll stand these two men side by side and let you pick which one you want!" The contrast between Barabbas and Jesus was obvious. One was brutally fierce; the other calm and peaceful. One lived by his sword; the other taught lessons about the kingdom of God. One killed; the other restored life and health. One used violence to get what he wanted; the other intended to give up his life to save the world.
Matthew includes an antidote not found in the other gospels. Pilate's wife tried to intervene on behalf of Jesus. But to no avail. Pilate, who thinks he has the religious leaders over the barrel, is in for a real surprise. When Pilate came back to the crowd and asked them for their decision, he was shocked by their response. The whole situation had spun wildly out of control. Pilate was trapped. Since he had asked for their input, he must now grant their request.
That raised a further dilemma. His new prisoner was unique and distinctive. Non-violent, mystical, harmless; yet creating such a stir among his own people that their authorities went to these extremes to get rid of him. Pilate didn't know what to do next. So he left the decision-making to the crowd. What shall I do with Jesus? The reply was swift and merciless. Crucify him!
The holiday crowd was in an ugly mood and nothing but blood could satisfy them. The seat of power shifted momentarily to the streets. In a frenzy, the shouting people accepted full responsibility. Symbolically Pilate scrubbed his hands but no amount of washing could get those hands clean. Barabbas, the evil one, was released. Jesus, the holy one, was sentenced to die.
We find it hard to believe no one came to his defense! None of those people whose lives Jesus had touched in a myriad of ways came forward to stand by his side. Jesus stood there bruised, bleeding, submissive--like a lamb at Passover time about to die for the sins of the people. The Jewish leaders thought they were accomplishing their purposes, but the picture was much bigger than they could see. It is God who is accomplishing God's purposes.
The blood of Jesus would be upon them all, but not in the way the chanters had meant those words. His blood would be upon them as a demonstration of God's mercy, grace and forgiveness. Blood shed in general terms to cover a multitude of sins. Blood shed for us all to cover our own specific sins. His blood be upon us, not to condemn and send us to hell, but to raise us up to newness of life in a spiritual kingdom where compassion, peace and joy reign. Which takes us full circle, back to the first line Jesus preached, "The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent! Do a 1-80, and believe the good news."
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Relate a time in your life when you, like Pilate, had too many questions and too few answers.
Jesus, who drew crowds everywhere he went, stood alone during his trial. Why did no one come to Jesus' defense. Do you fault his contemporaries for not standing by him? How does the idea of a silent majority apply to this story?
To what extent was Jesus alone in Pilate's judgment hall? To what extent was he not alone?
There was no way for Pilate to understand what was happening in his open-air courtroom. Jesus did nothing to safeguard his own life during this trial. Did Jesus want to die!?Neither did Jesus say anything to protect his image. Does that mean he didn't care what people thought about him?Unlike Jesus, most of us are very careful to protect and defend our public image. Why is that so important to us? And not to Jesus?
Pilate used a method many parents practice--laying out the choices from which children may choose. It's a win-win for all. Children gain experience at decision-making and are more likely to cooperate with the outcome, while parents control the parameters. But it wasn't a win for Pilate. What went wrong?
The Apostles' Creed, which has been used regularly in churches for many centuries, includes the phrase, "suffered under Pontius Pilate, . . . " Does Pilate deserve this notoriety? Why or why not? What was Pontius Pilate guilty of?What do we learn from Pilate about how to judge, or not judge, another person?
The choice between Jesus and Barabbas was partly a matter of distinguishing good from evil. You would think the choice should be easy. But people everywhere have difficulty discerning good from evil and then choosing the good. Give some examples which illustrate this point. Why is it hard to reach a consensus about the rightness of our decisions?
A common perception at the time was that anyone who was crucified was cursed by God. Therefore crucifixion discredited a person in the eyes of the general population and may have been the reason why the religious leaders demanded that form of execution. Describe the ways in which Jesus transformed the image of the cross.