We hear Pilate’s words, and we know that Jesus “has done nothing to deserve death”, and yet the words that come out of our mouths are “crucify him”.
How did it feel to demand Jesus’ death with your own voice? Did you feel a little removed, because you feel certain that you never would have demanded that? Is it easier for you to remove yourself from this suffering because it wasn’t your fault? Have you already decided to skip to the end, to move from palms to the empty tomb, because that’s the important stuff anyway? Are you genuinely confused that so many people could be so evil as to demand the death of an innocent man?
Look, those people weren’t any more evil or confused than you are. They screamed that Jesus deserved death because they knew what Jesus was saying. It’s why they waved palms and praised him outside the city of Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34). They knew if they called Jesus the king of anything inside those city gates, they’d all get killed right along with him. It was too political, too controversial, too risky. Sure, they’d be a part of the party as long as it was no risk to them. But now that they have to choose? Well, they’ll choose death. They’ll choose Barabbas.
It’s no big surprise, really. The people wanted Jesus dead because they were afraid they’d end up dead. If they can get him killed, they can save themselves. Jesus threatens their own political security and power, even though they’ve never had either thing. If they can get Jesus killed instead, they can pretend they don’t deserve death. If a murderer like Barabbas can be set free, maybe they deserve to get out of trouble, too.
You don’t have to be a terrible person to demand death. You just have to be someone who’s too interested in getting what you think you deserve to care. Theologian and preacher Fred Craddock writes this about the crowds: “No one enjoys feeling the ground shifting beneath the feet; if a crucifixion promises stability, then some will find reasons for the crucifixion. And they need not be evil people; they may be good people who have in the course of time gradually turned from the originating purpose to political expedients, which now protect them from those who remind them of that purpose.”
That cut me to my core, because I realized he was talking about me. And you, too. We trick ourselves into thinking that those who demanded Jesus’ death were evil people. Nope. They were just people. We trick ourselves into thinking we wouldn’t have done the same. Nope, we would have shouted for his death, too. We trick ourselves into thinking we always act just as we should and therefore escape judgement. Nope, we’re sinners. We constantly choose death, for ourselves, and worse, for others. We choose Barabbas. We deserve death.
But then, maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you hold yourself to a particular, exacting standard, because you operate in the logical fallacy that good people make good things happen. I know how that feels. I do that all the time. I deserve good things and I will rip myself apart trying to make good things happen. Hello, my name is Megan, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. I read what Brene Brown writes about perfectionism, and I get uncomfortable, because how has she been spying on me all this time? She says: “[Perfectionism] is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame… Somewhere along the way, [perfectionists] adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.’”
It’s the voice of perfectionism that echoes so loudly in my head during Holy Week. But I’m not a bad person! I insist. I wouldn’t have done that! Jesus didn’t have to die! Here, let me show you how pious and holy I am! Look how hard I’ve worked! I don’t deserve death! I deserve better!
Perfectionism lies to me and tells me I can earn my salvation. Perfectionism tells me that if I work hard enough and act in keeping with expectations just so and never, ever make a mistake that my deserving will be unquestionable. I am in control of my destiny. Perfectionism also tells me that anyone who isn’t as good and righteous and smart and pretty as I am isn’t as good as me. In fact, they’re probably bad. If bad things happen to them, it’s because they did bad things. I can prevent bad things from happening by being exactly perfect in every way.
And then the story of Holy Week slaps me across the face. Jesus goes to suffer and die, and I’m the one who demanded it. I chose death. I deserve death. But I don’t die. Jesus does. If Jesus did not deserve death, by Pilate’s own admission, and yet he still goes to the cross, what makes me think I deserve anything less? I am revealed as the sinner I am, full of brokenness and failure. I am brought face-to-face with the death I deserve, the death I demand, but Jesus receives it in my place.
And when I finally give up perfection and confess to the truth, I am finally able to see the wideness of God’s grace. And I know that God’s grace is not only for me, but it is the only thing I need, and the thing I least deserve.
I will give it up, and extend the same mercy to others. I will not expect perfection of myself as if perfection will allow me to work myself to stability and power. I will remember what I deserve, and that is nothing. I will turn instead to Jesus, who did not deserve death, but accepted it for my sake. I will let the world change beneath my feet from a transactional society where people earn what they get, where good people are rewarded and bad people left to suffer, to a family of grace, where all deserve nothing but receive everything by God’s own gracious hand.
I will see a world around me that chooses death, chooses it constantly, chooses it with bombs and gas and calculating political detachment, and instead of asking who deserves what, I will ask only how God calls me to be an agent of God’s unmitigated grace. Instead of demanding justice, I will demand mercy. Instead of demanding safety, I will demand compassion. Instead of demanding that my life is worth more than someone else’s, I will realize that I deserve death because I choose Barabbas, and the only reason I still live is because God chooses grace.
We are not perfect, but God holds us in grace and mercy regardless of what I or you or anyone else deserve. Jesus goes to the cross to take what we deserve from us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Fred B. Craddock, “Interpretation: Luke”, pg 269.
 Brene Brown, “Daring Greatly”, pg 129.