For Holy Week 2019, the Chapel presented a series of first-person narratives, called “Were You There,” from the perspective of different characters. This one, Barabbas, was written and presented by Dr. Julien Smith, Associate Professor of Humanities and Theology, Christ College, for Monday Morning Prayer, April 15, 2019.
I used to be a butcher. That’s how come I know how to use a knife. I also used to be a murderer.
My name is Judas Barabbas. But most everyone knew me as just Barabbas. Son of the father. That’s what my name means. It was always kind of a joke, because, you know, every man’s a son of some father. But me, I didn’t think of it like that. As a joke, I mean. OK, you’re going to think this is a little stupid, but I thought I was . . . well . . . I was the son of the Father. Not like the Messiah, or anything, but you know . . . a true son of the Father, a true son of Israel.
So let me back up. Being a butcher was not what you probably think. Sure, I knew how to cut up a lamb or a goat . . . all butchers do that. But I cut up meat according to Torah. It was . . . a sacred duty. Living life according to Torah—according to God’s instruction—was the one and only path to a blessed life. And it was also what marked us out as different. Faithfully observing Torah was our witness to the world.
Being a butcher, you pay attention to the small things. Like whether your knife has a notch in it. If it does—as I’m sure you all know—you can’t use it. Like draining all the blood out—to the very last drop. Like separating the fat from the meat. Like dissecting out the sciatic nerves— bet you didn’t know that one! Because the small things matter to God. Purity matters to Adonai. One drop of poison in a cup of clean water makes the whole cup poison! God’s people must be pure!
I was zealous for the purity of God’s people. Zeal. That’s the word we used. I’m not sure it means the same thing to you. Zeal. Like Phinehas. You know the story? Of course you do, it’s in the Torah. When Moses was leading our people out from slavery in Egypt. Well, they lost their way, and I’m not just talking about sense of direction. They lost their moral compass. They turned away from Adonai. They turned towards other gods. False gods. God’s people weren’t exactly thinking with their heads. They were thinking with their . . . you know. What I’m trying to say is that our men went after foreign women, and with the women came their gods.
So Phinehas, he sees a man, a son of Israel, go into his tent with a foreign woman, right in front of Moses’s eyes! Phinehas grabs his spear and goes into the tent. Bam! With the spear! Right through the both of them. That’s zeal.
So when I say I was a murderer, don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t kill people for money, for power, for sex. None of that. I killed for zeal. For Adonai. For God.
I was recruited when I was sixteen. It was the crucifixion that did it. A tax collector had been beaten, and ten sons of Israel paid the price. Crucified by Rome.
Death and taxes. I get it. You probably don’t like taxes either. But our tax collecters weren’t like yours. Well, for starters, it’s your government collecting the taxes. And with you guys it’s all on the up and up. Fair. Legal. But not for us.
Our government didn’t collect taxes. Because we didn’t even have a government. Our taxes went to Rome. Our hard earned money went to paying the very same Roman soldiers who were crucifying the sons of Israel! And tax collectors! They were sleeping with the enemy! Pimping for Rome! As long as they collected what Rome demanded, they could take however much they wanted on top of that.
So did I feel bad about slitting the throats of tax collecters? No I did not. Do you think Phinehas felt bad about thrusting his spear through those false sons of Israel? Of course not! We were zealous, and God reckoned our zeal as righteousness!
I was zealous, and I was good with a knife. That’s how come they recruited me. The sicarii, the dagger boys, we were called. “No god but Adonai!” That was our slogan. Murder was our method. Of course, we didn’t think of ourselves as murderers. We were soldiers. And anyone who was not on the side of Adonai—whether Romans or false Israelites—was the enemy. I knew this fellow Yeshua. Joshua you call him. Or is it Jesus. Well, I’d never actually met him. But I’d heard him speak plenty of times. He was a true son of Israel. Pure. Zealous for the ways of Adonai. A lover of Torah. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near. Some said he was the Messiah of Israel.
By the time Jesus had come to Jerusalem I had long put down my knife. Don’t get me wrong. I hadn’t abandoned the cause. It’s just that I wasn’t a foot soldier any more. I was a general. I was leading the troops in the holy war to free God’s people from Rome!
Problem was, I was a general without a king. I don’t mean to boast, but I was a brilliant strategist. But I was no messiah, and I knew it. I could command, but I couldn’t lead. False messiahs were a dime a dozen . . . Judas the Galilean, you’ve heard of him no doubt? Claimed to be the Messiah, arrested, crucified. Along with his followers. Nothing stops messianic fervor like a crucified messiah. Nobody wanted another false messiah. And I sure didn’t want to wind up on a Roman cross for pretending to be one.
But I was ready to give my life for the true Messiah. And I thought Jesus was it. If only you could have been there to hear him proclaim the good news—the gospel you call it—the good news that Adonai’s kingdom had come at last. The crowds hung on his every word. We were ready to die for him. All of us.
Hosanna! God saves! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Adonai! You should have seen the crowds when he entered Jerusalem. The revolution was happening right before our eyes.
And then he marched straight into the Temple and turned over the money tables of those false sons of Israel. They were speechless! The kingdom of God was here at last. Blessed be Adonai!
Then things fell apart. I was arrested. That didn’t surprise me too much. It was going to happen sooner or later. Rome had its spies. The false sons of Israel were everywhere. The one who betrayed me—he got his reward—my lieutenants made sure of that.
I was all set to be crucified, but I can honestly tell you—I wasn’t scared. As long as Jesus was free, the revolution lived. Rome could keep killing soldiers, and even generals. As long as the King lived. The Feast of Passover would be the moment. I knew it. And the Romans knew it too. They were hunting for him like crazy, but they could never catch him. Crazy like a fox, he would slip through their fingers.
Day and night I was on my knees praying that Adonai would preserve the life of his Messiah. And then the Feast of Passover arrived. This would be the moment that Messiah would deliver his people, as Moses had delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt.
Then things fell apart again. First I heard of it was when the jailer came to my cell. I thought it was crucifixion. But no. Barabbas, he says, you’re a free man. As he led me out to freedom I passed right by the place where they were flogging Jesus. For one moment our eyes met. And for the first time in my adult life, I wept.
I wept because the revolution had failed. Jesus the Galilean had let us down, just like Judas the Galilean before him. False messiahs. Deceivers of Israel. Everything I had given my life to was a lie, a cruel joke. Nothing would ever change.
I took my place in the crowd to watch as he carried his cross bar to the place of the skull. I was not one of the weepers, you understand. I reviled him. You thought you could save Israel! Save your self! Come down off that cross if you are the Messiah! If I’d had a stone in my hands I would’ve damn near killed him myself. But the Romans don’t allow that. No, if there’s any killing to be done, the Romans make sure it’s them’s the executioner. It’s the salt they rub in our wounds—You Jews can’t even be trusted to kill your own criminals.
They were quite good at it too, the Romans. Killing. Very efficient. And Jesus went quicker than most. And silently too. Usually there’s two kinds. The ones who cry in agony. And the ones who shout curses at Rome. But Jesus did neither. He didn’t cry out at all. Except at the very end.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Exactly what a false messiah should be crying out, I thought. But then I heard the absolute most god-awful blasphemy. Truly this man was God’s son. I looked around enraged. Which false son of Israel had uttered this most horrendous lie? Who dared blaspheme the name of Adonai by claiming this crucified deceiver was the Messiah? But it was no son of Abraham that said these words. This wicked lie came straight from the mouth of a gentile sinner—the Roman centurion in charge of the execution!
In stunned disbelief I looked for the barest hint of a smile. Surely this was Roman mockery at its cruel best. But no, there was not even a trace of irony in his expression. The soldier was simply staring up at the face of Jesus with a look of wonder in his eyes. It was the look of a man who’d just had his world turned upside down.
Well, that was the moment my world turned upside down as well. A Roman centurion—Israel’s sworn enemy—looking up at a man he’d just crucified and declaring him to be God’s son! A crucified Messiah? That made no sense at all!
Then I heard a voice. It was a voice I’d heard before. Barabbas. Yes Adonai. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Yes, Adonai. I have done so since the days of my youth.
Barabbas. Yes Adonai. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But Adonai— You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy! And Rome is the enemy!
Barabbas. Yes Adonai. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Yes Adonai.
In that moment I knew that the revolution was over. I’d been fighting with knives for the revolution all my life. But it was the wrong fight. It wasn’t the sort of fight you could win with knives.
That was the moment the revolution began. Not the revolution that conquers enemies with knives. But the revolution that changes hearts with love. The revolution that made a Roman centurion my neighbor.
I’m not a murderer anymore. I’m a true son of the Father.