Red Letter Year: 6/7

Matthew 27:11-26

11 Now Jesus was standing before Pilate, the Roman governor. “Are you the king of the Jews?” the governor asked him.

Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

12 But when the leading priests and the elders made their accusations against him, Jesus remained silent. 13 “Don’t you hear all these charges they are bringing against you?” Pilate demanded. 14 But Jesus made no response to any of the charges, much to the governor’s surprise.

15 Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner to the crowd—anyone they wanted. 16 This year there was a notorious prisoner, a man named Barabbas. 17 As the crowds gathered before Pilate’s house that morning, he asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you—Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 (He knew very well that the religious leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy.)

19 Just then, as Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message: “Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about him last night.”

20 Meanwhile, the leading priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be put to death. 21 So the governor asked again, “Which of these two do you want me to release to you?”

The crowd shouted back, “Barabbas!”

22 Pilate responded, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”

But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”

24 Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!”

25 And all the people yelled back, “We will take responsibility for his death—we and our children!”

26 So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.


This passage has  been used at times to justify the worst treatment imaginable of Jewish people, as if the targets of modern violence were somehow responsible for the death of Jesus because of what v. 25 says. Whatever the crowd said on that day, we know this is not how God works (“the soul that sins will die” sets aside all notions of inherited divine punishment). It also goes against what we have learned so far this year about putting ourselves in the place of the people in these narratives. The Jews here were the “people of God,” those who had  a special relationship with Yahweh through divine revelation and grace. And yet, given the choice between Barabbas and Jesus, they choose the patriot, the man of violence, the one willing to go to war with Rome. They reject the one talking about a new kingdom, the man of peace, the one willing to accept violence without responding in kind.

The question for us is not what this means for modern Jewry, but what choice we will make – because the choice remains ever one to make, Barabbas or Jesus. We cannot not count on help from whatever human political systems are in place, they are perpetually as pragmatic as Pilate was, their relationship to justice is ambivalence (at best) and their power never extends farther than appeasing the next angry mob and its unholy demands. Those of you in the United States need to be aware that its justice system is filled with the same sort of deal-making that Pilate attempts here; we settle for a managed approximation of justice (and that is putting the matter charitably). The true work of justice must be the work of the people of God bringing in the kingdom that Jesus makes possible. Hard work for those who remained enamored with Barabbas.

The New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.