MATTHEW 27:11-54

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

“Truly this man was a son of God” is the more literal translation of Matthew’s Greek text. While “God’s Son” provides a handy scriptural foothold for the later orthodox doctrine of Jesus’ exclusive identity as “God the Son,” in the mytho-religious context of Matthew’s day (circa 80-85 CE), “son of God” was a common designation for kings, saviors, saints, and wonder-workers. It was used as a way of acknowledging the special proximity to God (or the gods) that such individuals were believed to enjoy.

This declaration by the army commander is positioned in the story as an ironic counterpart to the earlier episode involving the “notorious prisoner” named Jesus Barabbas. Now the purported practice of releasing a dangerous prisoner on a festival day has no basis in actual history, but that is not where the real meaning of this episode is found anyway. We are painted the picture of two notorious troublemakers under Roman guard: Jesus Barabbas (literally Jesus son of the father) and our Jesus – the central figure of Matthew’s Gospel.

The irony, of course, is that our Jesus really is son of the father. There is interesting textual evidence to suggest that Jesus (of Nazareth) may have used the designation “father” (Abba) as a proper name in reference to God, similar to Zeus or Yahweh in that regard. His own self-understanding may have been inspired out of an experience of such intimacy that he came to see himself – and all people, for that was the scope of his vision – as directly descended from God.

This metaphorical model of family relationships – I am a son of God, you are a daughter of God; we are siblings and children of the same God – has far-reaching implications. Suddenly there are no outsiders; all are included. Jesus’ message of compassion for those who suffer, justice on behalf of the poor, and unconditional forgiveness for the enemy makes better sense when interpreted in the context of this familial model.

So there we see them, the two Jesuses, both truly sons of God (in the sense just explained) but only one – our Jesus – in trouble for living out its truth in faith and courage. The other, Barabbas, was likely a zealot or what might today be classified a militant fundamentalist.

Pilate calls out to the assembled mob, “Which one shall I release to you?”

“Barabbas!” they cry.

“And what about this other Jesus, the messiah?” Pilate inquires.

“Crucify him!” 

In a sense, the mob made the right choice. Between the one who provokes violence and the one who professes a boundless and unfailing love, the terrorist can be managed. Love – a radical love such as Jesus taught and demonstrated – changes things. It doesn’t advance by violence and murder, but transforms the heart from deep within.

If Empire can’t shut it down early, love will become an unstoppable force.


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