Rejoining Jesus’ ‘trial’ before Pilate, Mark introduces the information that the Romans would release a prisoner at Passover as a traditional but notional act of ‘goodwill’ – the interesting twist being that the subjugated Jews got to choose whom it would be.
Mark also gives information on Pilate’s motivation and personal convictions that the charges against Jesus were politically motivated falsehoods. In typical style he does not go into detail of how he knows this but other gospel accounts tell of Pilate’s vacillation, sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, his wife’s dream about Jesus’ innocence and Pilate’s attempt to wash his hands of the whole affair.
The earliest Christian tradition clearly is that Pilate is more of a passive participant: in the sense of having no active interest in seeing Jesus dead. He is caught on the horns of dilemma:
Release the innocent man and risk alienating even further pretty well the entire Jewish Sanhedrin and aggravating a hostile crowd – a crowd remember who are gathered from the entire Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem for Passover. And simultaneously fail to release one of their political heroes, Barabbas, who had had the courage to do what Jesus had not done – attempt a violent liberation of God’s people in God’s given land?
take the politically expedient route of killing this inconvenient Rabbi?
Political expediency wins.
There are so many things that could be said here. One thing that stands out to me is the stark and deliberate contrast between Barabbas and Jesus. The former represents the route of power and violence, might and force to achieve God’s ends and end Pagan occupation of Israel. This is the sort of thing the Messiah was expected to deliver.
The latter emphatically rejects the ‘will to power’ to achieve God’s ends. This upside-down-Messiah preaches an upside-down kingdom where the meek will inherit the earth and those who suffer for the kingdom are to consider themselves blessed. And this is no ‘soft’ or ‘weak option. It is the hardest path of all. He lives out this upside-down-kingdom all the way to the cross. And his followers today are called to take the same route of suffering, peace, powerlessness and non-violence.
6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.
14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.