Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Palm Sunday: Choosing Barabbas Over Jesus

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Week is the last week of Lent, and thus is the week leading up to Easter. As such, it is a time to reflect upon the Death and Resurrection of Jesus with particular intensity.

 

 

In most Catholic Churches, at least of the Latin Rite, it is traditional to read stories from the Passion narrative. I think there is an important lesson to learn here. By reading the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, we see the contrast between what transpired on these two days: those same people who welcomed Jesus in a kingly manner on Palm Sunday were the same people who chose Barabbas over Him just a few days later.

 

A lot of people reading the Gospels may say, “What hypocrites!” Others, seeing how Jesus’ death was initiated by a traitorous disciple and executed by the collusion of various religious and political leaders among the Israelites and Romans, may say, “Poor people! How easily manipulated by whatever happens to please them at that moment!”

 

 

The thing is, it is easy for people who have explicitly made the choice to accept Jesus, and who know Who Jesus Is, and who love Jesus, to say that. Such a person would, if present at the Way of the Cross, not be counted among those who would beat, spit on, or mock Jesus. In a word, hindsight is 20/20.

 

But, in a sense, are we any better? All sin includes a failure to love. St. Augustine once wrote in the seventh of a series of homilies on 1 John,

 

Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will – whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of its root nothing can spring but what is good. [2]

 

 

What this means is that God is love. Whenever there is true, authentic love, such love draws us to God and conforms us to God. This love can only produce good fruits. Every internal disposition produces effects, actions or intentions like unto itself. That is to say, if we are of a particular frame of mind, our thoughts, emotions, words, actions and desires will reflect this. If we are filled with true love, authentic love, our actions will reflect this. It is for this reason that Augustine says, “Love and do what you will”: One who loves never acts contrary to this love. It is for this reason that some have paraphrased Augustine’s quote in the following manner: “Love and do what you will, for a soul trained in the love of God will never do anything to offend the Beloved.”

 

Sinners love, but their love is misplaced. We are meant to love a thing to the extent that it is good, which means that we love the good and hate the evil, and we love greater goods above lesser goods, with our love for God, as the Source of all goodness, being the highest, most central, or most powerful of our loves. Sin arises because we love that which we ought to hate – namely evil – or love a lower good above a higher good, while not loving that which we ought to love to the extent that we ought to love it, or even feeling indifferent or hateful towards it.

 

To love what we ought to hate and to hate what we ought to love; to love a lesser good above a greater good, or to love any good above THE GREATEST GOOD, namely God – that is the essence of sin. And this disordered love is not authentic love. This fake love, this failure to love what we ought and as we ought, is what it means to fail to love.

 

Thus, what the Ancient Israelites did – praising Jesus as the King one day, and having him sentenced to death the next – we do every time we sin. The crowd wanted Pilate to release Barabbas, a man who, according to Luke 23:19, had been the leader of an insurrection that resulted in murder. They chose a rebel and a murder over the Son of God. This is symbolic as well: sin is, in some sense, rebellion against the order established by God in creation. To murder is to kill the innocent, that is, to kill those who haven’t done anything worthy of death. It doesn’t matter why you murder, or the details of the case; the willingness to murder is a sign of a lack of charity on the part of the one who does the act.

 

The order of creation, the structure of reality as established by God, comes forth from God as its cause and is ordered back towards God as its most final end. Non-human creatures, based on the structure of their being, have an innate and spontaneous desire to act towards the end for which they were created. Yet, humans were the only beings to be created with an open-ended existence, that is, we are the only creatures that don’t immediately and spontaneously act towards their end. This was because humans were created in the image and likeness of God, which partly involves having and using free will. Humans are free agents, just as God is. But, simply having free will isn’t enough. God, being All-Good, always uses His Freedom for the sake of bringing about the good. Man, to attain his proper end, must not only have free will, but must also properly make use of free will. And man makes proper use of his free will when his actions are born out of love.

 

Man attains his proper end by acting out of love, because it is only through THIS that we truly and fully imitate God. To sin is to hate what we ought to love, or to love a thing inordinately, thereby deviating from the plan on account of which God created us. Thus, to rebel against God and a lack of charity go hand-in-hand. Whenever we sin, we chose rebellion and hate over obedience towards and love of He Who Is The Highest Good. Whenever we sin, we do what the Israelites did: chose Barabbas over Jesus.

 

This Holy Week, as we approach Easter, let us meditate upon this fact. How can we reap the spiritual fruits of Jesus’ Resurrection? By imitating Jesus rather than the Israelites. The Israelites and Romans hated God and rebelled against Him. All sin – most especially hatred towards God or goodness and rebellion against God – are born out of pride, which is the sin of thinking more highly of oneself than one ought, to the point of not wanting to submit to God. Yet, Jesus, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:5-11, in an act of obedience to the Father’s plan of salvation, emptied Himself for our sake, even to the point of becoming a man and dying a painful, humiliating death. Because Jesus, out of love for the Father and a love for man, humbled Himself to such a degree, He was glorified by the Father. We reap the fruits of Christ’s act of salvation, thereby being glorified in Christ, by imitating Christ, which we by emptying ourselves in obedience to God, due to our love for God and our fellow man. We can either give in to pride, and therefore hate and rebel against God, or we can humble ourselves as Christ did, and therefore be glorified as He was on the First Easter Sunday.

 

Sources:

  1. The Bible verses containing the story of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem are: Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19. The verses speaking of Jesus’ Passion are: Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, John 13-21
  2. St. Augustine, “Homily 7,” in Homilies on First John, translated by H. Browne, in The Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1888). Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/170207.htm

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