Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth?

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A.

In order to understand the beginning of a journey, it’s often helpful to look ahead to the end of the journey, especially if you know where you are going.

Five weeks from now, on Palm Sunday, we will hear the familiar account of our Lord’s Passion from Matthew’s gospel. To understand our gospel today, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, it’s helpful to fast-forward to the end of our Lenten journey, and focus on one particular moment in the Passion narrative. That moment is when Pilate gives the crowd the choice to release one of the prisoners he has in custody: either Jesus or Barabbas.

Having heard the Passion narrative proclaimed so many times before, most of us are familiar with the fact that Barabbas was a revolutionary. He had taken part, and had helped lead, a political uprising in an attempt to overthrow the Roman authorities. In that sense, he was a messianic figure—a savior, not in spiritual way, but in a worldly one. Had he been successful in his uprising, he could have brought the kind of salvation that many were hoping for: freedom from Roman oppression and the worldly affluence and power that would come from that freedom.

Interestingly, if were to consult some of the most ancient biblical manuscripts, we would note that Jesus of Nazareth and Barabbas actually shared a lot in common. Not only were they both messianic figures—although in very different senses—they actually had the same first name. Barabbas, like other Hebrew names (Bartimaeus, Bartholomew, Barnabas), was actually a kind of last name, indicating who his father was. The Hebrew prefix, “Bar,” just means “Son of.” But Barabbas’ first name, according to some of the most ancient manuscripts, was actually also “Jesus.” Pilate’s question to the crowd then becomes more poignant, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?”

This question becomes even more poignant when we realize what the name “Barabbas” actually means. “Bar” means “Son of” and “abbas” (or “abba”) means “father.” At Pilate’s prompting, the crowd must choose between two messianic figures: “Jesus Barabbas”—“Jesus son of the father”—and Jesus of Nazareth, who is the true Son of the Father. This is a choice between a messiah, Barabbas, who promises the world and all it has to offer—pleasure, honor, and power—and a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who has nothing more to offer, and nothing less, than God Himself.

And this is the choice that the devil tempts Jesus with in our gospel today. Instead of a messiah who offers us nothing more or less than God Himself, the devil tempts Jesus of Nazareth to be a messiah like Barabbas: a worldly messiah who comes to bring, not a Kingdom of God, but a kingdom of this world, a kingdom of pleasure, honor, and power.

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Don’t save the people by giving them the Bread of Truth and the Bread of Life; don’t try to save their souls; satisfy their stomachs. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Don’t save the people by teaching them to honor God and their neighbor; teach them to honor themselves by seeking attention, awards, and the applause of the crowd. “All [the kingdoms of the world]” I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” Don’t save the people by seeking to serve and sacrifice; don’t worship a God who humbles Himself; worship what really matters: the power to control and dominate. In short, don’t be who you came to be; don’t be the true Son of the Father; be a revolutionary, be a Barabbas.

This is what the devil tempts Jesus to be and to do: the be a messiah who offers a pathway to pleasure, honor, and power, not a messiah who offers a pathway—and indeed the pathway—to God. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, “not the pleasure, the honor, and the power.” This is who Jesus chooses to be in rejecting the temptations of the devil. He could have solved world hunger and then some. He could have built an entertainment industry and celebrity culture more scintillating and tantalizing than anything Hollywood has to offer. He could have controlled and ruled the most enduring and prosperous empire the world has ever seen. He could have given us pleasure, honor, and power beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams, but He chose to give us God.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, as begin our Lenten journey, we might ask, “Is that enough?” C.S. Lewis once said that “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” But the question is, “Is that true?” Or might we perhaps prefer, at least in our weakest moments, to have that “everything else,” in addition to, or perhaps even in replacement of, God? Is God Himself really preferable to the pleasure, honor, and power that the world has to offer?

In choosing to fast, pray, and give alms this Lent, we are choosing to reject the same temptations that Jesus faced. In fasting, we choose God over pleasure; in praying, we choose honoring God over honoring ourselves; in giving alms, we choose God over earthly riches and the power that comes from them. Our commitment to these practices can reveal whether we truly believe that God is enough or not.

Over these next five weeks, as we make our way to Palm Sunday and the holy days that follow, let’s prepare ourselves to make the choice that the crowd failed to make on that fateful day. Let’s choose Jesus of Nazareth, the true Son of the Father, not Barabbas the imposter. Let’s reject the promises of earthly salvation, and embrace the promise of eternal salvation that Jesus has to offer. Amen.