Southminster Presbyterian Church

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One Prisoner's Story

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 53:1-6; Mark 15:1-15

             My name means “son of the father,” which is strange because I’m not at all like my father.  My father was a prestigious Jewish official.  I am what some might call a terrorist.  But before you judge me, consider this.  We were an oppressed people living under a brutal dictatorship.  I know you’ve heard the story of what King Herod did in Bethlehem, how he killed all the children two years old and younger because he was afraid one of them might grow up and take over his throne.  Shouldn’t we fight against a tyrant like that?  And then there was Pontius Pilate.  Pilate seized some of the money from our temple fund and used it for one of his own public works projects.  When we protested he sent soldiers disguised as civilians to infiltrate the demonstration.  At his signal they pulled out clubs and began beating people to death.  Hundreds died.  Is it wrong to take up arms against such a corrupt and brutal dictator?  I wasn’t a terrorist.  I was a freedom fighter.  I led a band of Jews who ambushed small squads of Roman soldiers, killing as many as possible, so that the Romans would be worn down by the mounting toll of casualties and finally decide to leave.

I expected to die in this struggle.  I was fully prepared to give my life in glorious battle for the sake my people.  What I did not expect was to be captured alive and spend my last days in a Roman jail, chained to a wall, waiting to have my wrists and ankles nailed to a cross.

            On the day of my execution I heard voices in the courtyard outside.  A crowd had gathered in front of Pilate’s Praetorium.  Maybe they are here to demand my release.  For weeks I had dreamed of a nationwide strike—masses of Jewish people marching through the streets carrying signs and shouting, “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”  But I knew it wouldn’t happen.  For decades the Romans humiliated and exploited us: seizing our land, making slaves of our sons and daughters, forcing us to pay taxes to support the very soldiers who oppressed us.  For generations we lived under this tyranny but none of my people would join me in the fight.  They just sat in their homes and synagogues praying for a Messiah, some imagined Savior who would come to set them free.

            Just then my cell door rattled open and the jailer stepped in.  “I have some news for you,” he said, taking a bite of a large fig.  “We’ve arrested that Galilean fellow from Nazareth, the one you call Jesus.  He was condemned to death this morning by Pontius Pilate.”

            “Why should I care?” I snapped.

            “I just thought you’d like to know,” the jailer said, popping the rest of the fig into his mouth.  “Isn’t he supposed to be your Messiah?”

            I had heard about Jesus, of course.  Early on I even thought about joining him. He spoke of God’s kingdom with an authority that made even the Jewish leaders tremble.  Then he backed up his words with demonstrations of power: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising people from the dead.  He had all the qualifications of the promised Messiah; only he didn’t act like the Messiah.  He had no weapons, no armies, no political base.  He just wandered through the country preaching, as if words could change people’s lives.

            “Why should I care about Jesus?” I said to the jailer.  “He was a coward and a fake.  He went around preaching love when all you Romans understand is power.  Love?  Love never opened any prison doors.  If you want freedom you have to fight for it.”

            “Well, maybe so,” the jailer shrugged.  “But he sure did all right by you.”

            “What are you talking about?” I asked.

            “I’m talking about your freedom,” the jailer said.  “That’s what I came to tell you.  Pilate has a custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during the Passover.  He was going to release Jesus, but since the people wanted Jesus crucified, he decided to release you instead.”

            What?  I was convicted terrorist.  Jesus was an unarmed, penniless carpenter.  Jesus never lifted a sword or attacked a Roman soldier in his life.  Yet Jesus was to be executed as a threat to the government, while I was set free?  It made no sense.

            “It’s a trick,” I said to jailer.

            “Sure.  Everything to you is a trick,” the jailer said.  “The only thing you understand is hate.  But what have you gotten for your hate, Barabbas?  Each attack on Roman soldiers leads to a new round of violent retaliation by the Romans, which in turn leads to new attacks.  Where does it end?”

            “It will end when we drive you Romans into the sea,” I snarled.

            Jailer shrugged.  “Yes, and then what?  Suppose you drive us out, Barabbas.  Suppose you get rid of us the way we got rid of the Greeks.  What then?  By the time you defeat us you will have shed so much blood and built up so much hate, you won’t know how to live any more as a human being.  You will rule over an angry nation full of violent people, and you will rule them with the same tyranny we did.”

            I glared at him.  “You, a Roman soldier, have the audacity to lecture me about hate.  You kill my people, occupy our land, use us as pawns in your wars of conquest, and you dare to talk to me about hate.”

            “I understand your hate,” the jailer said.  “But I’m telling you that hate won’t set you free.  Only love can do that.”  Then he came over, knelt down in front of me, and unfastened the shackles on my ankles.  Then he stood up and took off the chains from my wrists.  “There,” he said, “now you are free.”

            I rubbed my wrists and slowly stretched my arms and legs.  What was that I had said?  “Love never opened any prison doors.”  But here was a prison door opened for me.  And it wasn’t opened with swords, it wasn’t opened with armies, it wasn’t opened with violence.  It was opened by someone willing to take my place on a cross.

Then I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah that I had learned as a child: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

            The jailer motioned for me to go, but in the doorway of the cell I stopped to ask him one more question.  I said, “If you really believe that armies and swords will never conquer hate, why do you use them?”

            The jailer thought about this for a moment, then said, “Because we are afraid.  We are afraid of losing our lives, our homes, our freedom, our privileges.  We are afraid of what hate may do to us, so we fight, hoping that if we cannot destroy hate, at least we can restrain it.”

            I looked at the jailer and for the first time I saw the person inside the uniform.  “So you are a prisoner as much as I am,” I said.

            He laughed.  “Of course.  We must always keep up our guard.  We can never relax.  A jail imprisons people on both sides of the bars.  But what else can we do?”

            “It’s strange,” I said.  “Yesterday you were planning to kill me, and given the chance I would have killed you.  But today, an innocent man who did not try to kill anyone is hanging on a cross, and you and I are talking as if we were friends.  What do you make of that?”

            “I don’t know, the jailer said, “But if he is the Messiah, he has a strange way of liberating people.”

            “Yes,” I admitted.  “But it works.”


"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7