As we stand on the precipice of Holy Week we are about to encounter various situations and persons in the Gospels that we only hear about in church once a year. On Good Friday we will hear about Barabbas, the man who Pilate released to the crowds over and against Jesus of Nazareth. That the crowds would call for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified is a piece of great political manipulation on the part of the chief priests and the Roman Governor Pontus Pilate. In the midst of a mock trial we witness a sort of democracy at play, the people decide between two prisoners. The problem, though, is that the game has been rigged. One of the prisoners will be chosen not through free decision-making but through the manipulation of those making the decision. It’s a set up.
Initially, the crowds who called for Jesus to be crucified were on his side. They were “astonished” by his teaching and hung on every word he said. This is why the chief priests and the scribes feared these same crowds as they sought ways to get Jesus arrested. They knew that they could do nothing out in the open other than try and trap Jesus in his words. They had to be stealthy and move in the darkness of the night and amid the shadows. During the trial of Jesus their work behind the scenes finally gets them what they desired all along for Jesus: crucifixion. They do so by stirring up the crowds at the trial. These leaders know their people, they know the crowds, they know what makes them tick, they know what drives them.
As Donald Trump gets closer to becoming the GOP nominee for POTUS many continue to be stunned. There are talks of a GOP implosion of sorts. It’s fascinating to watch. One of the things that has brought Donald Trump to this point is something very simple: he knows his audience and he knows them well. He’s not so much leading as he’s giving a voice to the opinions of his supporters. Remember, Trump is a reality TV star, became a household name in the 1980s through his real estate successes, is the author of “The Art of the Deal” giving hope to many Americans that they too could achieve the American dream of wealth and status. He has been in a McDonald’s commercial and even appeared on WWE. As reporter, Ali A. Rizvi, put it:
“Trump is an astute opportunist who is incredibly smart, recognizes his audiences, and plays to their ignorance — capitalizing on their anger, fears, and sense of victimization to further his political stature. It’s classic, dictionary-definition demagoguery. (There’s no comparison, of course, but this is exactly the kind of thing leaders like Hitler were so good at.) His victimhood-peddling allows him to disguise hate and prejudice as hope and justice for poor, anxious Americans.”
My wife, who has quite the background in acting and performing, often points out that Trump knows how to stay in character when on stage or in interview. In other words, Donald Trump is a man who has been trained in performance art. In a sense, it’s not that Donald Trump is leading the way it’s that he’s capitalizing on the fears, worries and anger of the people. It’s really masterful what he’s done. He’s skilled at playing the crowds. Trump often claims that he’s not a politician but in many regards he’s but the result of the political game that has gone on for centuries. Playing on the fears of people, oversimplifying issues, claiming to have the solutions and being concerned with the little guy. It’s all part of the deal. The problem, though, is that Trump is part of the elite. He was born into wealth and having wealth played a big part in his creating more wealth. Smoke and mirrors my friends.
And this brings me back to what I writing about earlier. The chief priests and scribes played on the fears, worries and genuine concerns of the crowd. The livelihood of many in the crowd depended upon the Temple system. Think about how a priest like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, would react to someone claiming that the Temple would be destroyed and that he is the new Temple. Think about how someone who sold merchandise in the Temple court reacted to Jesus when he flipped their tables and drove out their livestock shutting down their economy. The Temple industry employed many people in various ways and means in and throughout Judea. For Jesus to attack the center point of Jewish life and worship in such a way was not only scandalous but also threatening. And so the chief priests stirred up the crowds and got them going. They capitalized on their fears and insecurities. The crowds are controlled without realizing that they are. The desire of the powerful become the desire of the masses, the crowds. They go from being astonished by Jesus to calling for him to be crucified. They become possessed, crying out like those possessed with unclean spirits for Jesus to be crucified.
Sadly, though, the crowds fail to detect that they are nothing more than pawns in a game which becomes even more clear with Pontius Pilate. Pilate had the tradition of releasing a prisoner to them every year during this time so as to placate them and keep them from revolting. Things were tense between the Romans and the Jews. The Roman occupiers know that a little give and take is needed in order to keep the peace with a deeply religious and oppressed people such as the Israelites. With this as the backdrop we can better understand Pontius Pilate who was known for being rather ruthless and politically astute. Pilate walks a very fine line. He questions the crowds about Jesus’ innocence and guilt not for the sake of justice but to put them into a position in which it is their decision and not his. Such a maneuver protects him in the event that not all goes well or according to plan. And so the crowds will call for Barabbas to be set free and Jesus to be crucified. Pilate will give them what they want for the sake of political expediency and keeping the peace. This was a faux peace, though, it was Pax Romana.
The crowds will get an insurrectionist, a bandit, a revolutionary, a terrorist who would fight and kill for the Temple, for Yahweh’s honor. He will draw Roman blood, he will draw corrupt and unclean Jewish blood in an attempt to set his people free and bring about restoration to his people Israel. He’s old wine in old wineskins. He brings hope to a world and to a people who recall the days of Joshua and David defeating their enemies in the name of God. There’s nothing new when it comes to Barabbas. Interestingly enough, Barabbas and those like him will end up failing. In AD 70 the Romans will crush the Jewish revolt and destroy the Temple along with it. Jesus on the other hand is just too much or maybe not enough, his Way leaves something to be desired. According to the world it’s impractical. In the process of following him, all could be lost so it’s better to go with the familiar. The crowd’s desire for Barabbas, however manipulated, is but the expression of their core values and hopes. Jesus is great but when he refused to pick up a sword in the garden all was lost for him. That’s when many lost their hope in him, he would not begin an armed revolt against Rome and the corrupt Sanhedrin. It was time to look elsewhere.