St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“When I Shout Barabbas...”
Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.
When I shout Barabbas, and I have to admit sometimes I do, when I shout Barabbas I have made a choice beyond what I know to be right to choose what I think might be better, at least for me. When I shout Barabbas, I overlook the obvious sins and failures of one choice for political expediency or power. When I shout Barabbas, I sell my soul willingly, knowingly, and heartbreakingly. Heartbreaking to myself and to God.
On Sunday I spoke of my favorite novel, and I have pretty much decided that that one will be the next in the stack. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo tells the story of a man, Jean Valjean who was convicted and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Strong beyond belief already because of his massive size, and strengthened by hard labor, he is a force to be reckoned with. He attempts to escape, and gets years added to his sentence. When finally set free after 19 long years he has no hope, no prospects, an eternal convict his future appears to be a prison as much as the one he just left. Until, that is, he stays with one of my favorite characters in literature, Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu, Bishop of Digne. Minor though he may be in the epic novel, he stepped in and granted Grace when it was needed, and in doing so set off the chain of events that became the rest of the story.
Bishop Bienvenu invited him into his home, and seated him at his table, and served him with silver that the bishop had inherited from his aunt. Bishop Bienvenu was known for living simply, and giving most of what he had to the poor. One inherited gift was his only thing of value in his home.
Late in the night, in the wee hours, Jean Valjean who had learned in prison to take care only for himself steals the silver service and runs away. Police see him running out of the city, and stop and search him finding the silver in his bag. Valjean lies, saying the silver service was a gift. Not believing him, they drag him back the Bishop Bienvenu and confront him there, repeating Jean Valjean’s story that the silver was a “gift” from an old priest. The bishop says that Jean Valjean was right. They were a gift, but that there was an error, Jean Valjean had forgotten the most expensive part of the service, the large silver candlesticks on the mantle, and the Bishop hands them to Valjean. The gendarmes, the police, are surprised and the Bishop thanks them and sends them on their way.
I now quote from the book, starting with the Bishop speaking:
‘Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.’Valjean, who did not recall having made any promise, was silent. The bishop had spoken the words slowly and deliberately. He concluded with a solemn emphasis:‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’Each and every one of us has had our souls bought by the ultimate price, the most costly gift in all eternity. And those purchased souls have been given over into the hands of a loving God. But so often, when we cry out Barabbas, we snatch our souls back forgetting and foregoing what a wonderful gift we have been given.
In the story, Jean Valjean did much the same thing. A few miles outside of town a boy has a big shiny coin he had earned, and is walking along and flipping it up in the air. Valjean is sitting under a tree in the heat of the day, contemplating what it was that has just been done for him. The boy misses the coin coming down, and it rolls across the road to where Valjean is sitting. He sees the boy. He sees the coin. He takes his massive foot, strengthened by the decades of hard labor, and places it squarely on top of the coin. The boy laughs, thinking it is a joke, then pleads, cries, and begs. Finally, he pushes and shoves and screams. Jean Valjean’s heart, conditioned only to look out for himself, is not moved. And broken, the boy moves on in tears. After a time, Valjean comes to his senses, and figures out that he has already broken his promise to the Bishop. He runs, trying to find the boy and return the coin, but the boy is gone.
And then, at that point in the story, Jean Valjean’s heart of stone cracks, and he is reborn. Echoing in the foothills that day, he may have heard the echoes of “Barabbas, Barabbas, Give Us Barabbas!” But even here, when the words are still dangling in the air having come off our lips, Grace is still a possibility. Jean Valjean took the silver set and candlesticks of the Bishop, and the coin of the boy, and made good. He became a factory owner employing many in a small town, and even became mayor out of the respect people gave him. As the Bishop said, he had bought his soul for God.
When we are the redeemed, our souls bought and paid for with so dear a price, and when we are the mob shouting Barabbas (as we too often are), Grace abounds and calls us home. Even with the word Barabbas hanging from our lips, let the words that echo not be “Barabbas!” but let them be Christ’s: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Thanks be to God! Amen