In the gospel telling of Jesus’ journey to the cross, one small character catches our attention for an instant and then disappears from the rest of the biblical account. We read about him in Matthew 27:15-26:
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him….
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
In his novel, Barabbas (1950), Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Pär Lagerqvist grabs ahold of that brief mention of an infamous character and builds it into a powerful retelling of Barabbas’ life. Tracing Barabbas’ story from the moment of the exchange, and then working both backward to his earlier life and forward through his unfolding years, Lagerkvist offers a compelling picture of how Barabbas’ life was affected by his literal replacement by Jesus in crucifixion. Characters, some biblical and some not, weave in and out of Barabbas’ life as he lives in Jerusalem and beyond as a man haunted by the life he has received back as a gift, yet which at times feels like a curse.
In one particularly poignant scene, Lagerqvist opens wide Barabbas’ grappling with the story of Jesus, in a heated exchange with one of the early Christ-followers. Barabbas begins the exchange:
—The Son of Man?
—Yes. That’s what he called himself.
—The Son of Man . . . ?
—Yes. So he said. But some believe . . . No, I can’t say it.
Barabbas moved closer to him.
—What do they believe?
—They believe . . . that he is God’s own son.
—Yes . . . But surely that can’t be true, it’s almost enough to make on afraid. I would really much rather he came back as he was.
Barabbas was quite worked up.
—How can they talk like that! he burst out. The son of God! The son of God crucified! Don’t you see that’s impossible!
—I said that it can’t be true. And I’ll gladly say it again if you like.
—What sort of lunatics are they who believe that? Barabbas went on, and the scar under his eye turned dark red, as it always did when there was anything the matter. The son of God Of course he wasn’t! Do you imagine the son of God comes down into the earth? And starts going around preaching in your native countryside!
—Oh . . . why not? It’s possible. As likely there as anywhere else. Its’ a humble part of the world, to be sure, but he had to begin somewhere.
Some retellings of biblical stories fall dramatically flat, turning the characters we know well into two-dimensional plaster saints. However, Lagerqvist’s rendering of Barabbas’ life opens the biblical story in a way that breathes life into hidden passageways of the Bible. He leads us into deeper reflection on the significance of Jesus’ journey to the cross and what it might have been like within the earliest Christian community, as they wrestled with who Jesus was and what He accomplished. All the while, Lagerkvist forces us as the readers to grapple with the nature of God and what God might mean for us as human beings journeying through life upon this earth.
“The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.
“Asia Bibi Finally Leaves Pakistan for Canada” – For those of you who follow cases related to religious freedom, the ongoing legal issues of Asia Bibi in Pakistan seem to have come to a close. “In Pakistan’s most-watched persecution case, Bibi spent more than eight years in prison on blasphemy charges and faced the death penalty. After she was exonerated last year, she could not live freely in her home country since she was at risk of attacks by rogue clerics calling for vigilante justice; more than 50 people charged with blasphemy have been murdered there. Bibi, now in her 50s, is a mother of five, and two of her daughters had already moved to Canada for asylum.”
“Why white nationalism tempts white Christians” – Here is Jemar Tisby, once again cutting into one of the raging sores of contemporary evangelicalism in the racial and political spheres. “Troublesome though it may be, Christians must contend with these twin facts: White nationalism is on the rise, and white Christians are susceptible to this ideology….Too often Christian individuals and institutions act as if general statements condemning bigotry and saccharine assertions of racial and ethnic equality are sufficient to combat white nationalism. They are not. White nationalists engage in sustained and sophisticated recruiting and propaganda tactics to advance their agenda.”
“Jean Vanier: Founder of L’Arche dies aged 90” – “The son of a Canadian diplomat, Jean Vanier embarked upon a naval career that saw him serve during the World War Two. But in 1950 he resigned his commission saying that he wanted ‘to follow Jesus’. He studied theology and philosophy, completing his doctoral studies on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle. He became a teaching professor at St Michael’s College in Toronto. During the Christmas holidays of 1964, he visited a friend who was working as a chaplain for men with learning difficulties just outside Paris. Disturbed by conditions in which 80 men did nothing but walk around in circles, he bought a small house nearby and invited two men from the institution to join him. L’Arche – the Ark – was born.” More at the L’Arche website.
“Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37” – “Rachel Held Evans, a best-selling author who challenged conservative Christianity and gave voice to a generation of wandering evangelicals wrestling with their faith, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville. She was 37. Her husband, Daniel Evans, said in a statement on her website that the cause was extensive brain swelling. During treatment for an infection last month, Ms. Evans began experiencing brain seizures and had been placed in a medically induced coma.”
“Died: Warren Wiersbe, Preachers’ Favorite Bible Commentator“ – “Bible teacher, pastor, and preacher Warren Wiersbe died Thursday at age 89, leaving an impressive legacy of teaching, preaching, and mentoring countless pastors. Through his lessons, broadcasted sermons, and over 150 books, he resourced the church to better read and explain the Bible. In a tribute, grandson Dan Jacobsen recalled how pastors often tell him, ‘There’s not a passage in the Bible I haven’t first looked up what Wiersbe has said on the topic.'”
“18 Paintings Christians Should See” – Brett McCracken assembles an all-star group of Christian artists, art appreciators, art professors, and art curators to recommend visual art that Christians should be familiar with. This article, and its companion pieces, reminds me of a book I enjoyed reading this past summer, Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film.
“The Banality of the F-Bomb” – At The National Review, Heather Wilhelm addresses cultural change through the lens of the F-Bomb. “Today, as [Larry] King himself has noted, the F-bomb — once known as the ultimate forbidden verbal lightning bolt, the Utterance That Must Not Be Named, or at least the word of last resort to use when you’re really hopelessly mad — might as well be growing out of random cracks in the sidewalk. In 2019, the F-word is a throwaway. It is a sneeze. It is as common as dandelion fluff.”
“Reveling in Hope” – Wesley Hill writes about the power of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. “For part of my sabbatical this year, I spent a few weeks in England, and when I saw that the New Cambridge Singers and the Cambridge Baroque Camerata would be performing Bach’s last triumphant masterwork in the vast, dim, Oxford Movement-inspired chapel at St. John’s College, I knew I would not miss it. Much as I have loved listening to John Eliot Gardiner and the late Sir Georg Solti’s recordings over the years — solemnly authentic and brightly fleet, respectively — hearing this music performed live in a space where I had knelt for Evensong on previous days was a privilege not to be forgotten.”
Music: After Wesley Hill’s essay, it seems fitting to share John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Mass in B Minor. Here it is: “Bach Messe h-moll BWV 232 Mass B minor Sir John Eliot Gardiner.”
[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]