Thinking about Barabbas

by Mary Ann McGivern

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When I took the job as director of a program to assist released prisoners reentering society, a friend sent a message promising to pray for me to St. Barabbas. Of course, she meant Dismas, the thief on Jesus’ right to whom he promises eternal life. But the mistake brought me up short. Since then I think of Barabbas often.

Imagine him chained in the deep dungeons below Jerusalem, well underneath all those shops tourists visit. Barabbas, dirty, thirsty, sore from beatings and abuse, is waiting to be crucified. Then, all of a sudden, he is released from his chains and dragged up to the bright light. I picture him standing, confused, in the sun, filthy, wearing rags.

Where did he go? Did he have family? He is said to have been an insurrectionary Zealot, so maybe he had a community of friends and supporters to turn to. Maybe they were there, looking for him, having heard Pontius Pilate’s instruction to release Barrabas. Surely they hustled him out of the city to safety.

From childhood I had imagined Barrabas to be a murderer, the worst of the worst, replaced by Jesus in a bitterly ironic role reversal. That interpretation makes my image of Barabbas released even stronger. When he learned about the trade, he must have felt gratitude at his great good luck. Did he feel pity for Jesus? Did he become a follower of Jesus? If he’d been a murderer, did he reform? What help did he need to build a new life? Did he get that help or was he rearrested?

In this day of mass incarceration we see a lot of Barabbases. Pray for them. Make a commitment to some small action to set prisoners free.

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