Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.
This is a difficult part of the story. And I don’t mean simply that it’s sad or tragic, though certainly it is. It’s difficult because it, and corresponding scenes in the other gospels, have been the basis for justifying anti-Semitism for centuries.
While none of the Gospels agree completely on the role Pilate played or the exact words or motivations of the people in the crowd, all of them tend to shift the responsibility for Jesus’ death away from Pilate and toward the crowd of onlookers. This, in turn, has led Christians at dark times of our history to assign blame for Jesus’ death to Jews and justify all manner of mistreatment of the children of Israel.
Two things to address this difficult element of history. First, by all accounts Jesus dies at the hands of the state and it is unlikely that his religious differences with the Pharisees and scribes would have constituted grounds for Pilate not just to get involved but also to sentence him to death. Rather, Jesus was most likely seen as a threat to both religious and political authorities. Why shift attention to the crowd? It could be that the primary opponents of the early Christian communities for whom Luke and others wrote were Jewish religious authorities; perhaps, indeed, they even suffered persecution from them. Or perhaps there was a desire not to offend those Roman Gentile Christians who were joining the church. Or perhaps that’s just the tradition that evolved in the telling. But whatever the reason, we need to be clear, both religious and political authorities had a hand in Jesus’ fate and neither one can be completely blamed or exonerated.
Second, we miss the point of the story if we focus on who was at fault then; rather, the story invites us to imagine the multiple ways in which we resist God’s in-breaking kingdom of grace and forgiveness now. When are we so afraid, or so rigid, or so needing to be in control that we would almost put to death the one who comes bearing a new and surprising word of acceptance and grace? As Johann Hermann pens in his seventeenth century hymn, Ah Holy Jesus:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
Prayer: Dear God, as we read the story of the passion let us resist the temptation to blame others and instead question in our own hearts how we resist your overtures of grace and love in our lives today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post image: Ivan Glazunov, “Crucify Him!”, oil on canvas, 1994.