Barabbas Was Lucky
September 17, 2023
From time to time I will write a letter of recommendation. I count it a privilege, much like writing a funeral homily or a wedding reflection: it is a unique moment of privilege to step into someone’s life and offer words of encouragement and praise. When I am done writing the letters, I follow a practice of a seminary mentor. I give the completed letter in an unsealed envelope. And to the person I am recommending I say, “this is your letter. Send it; don’t sent it. But you should know what it says before you decide.”
This is what my mentor did. He gave me a letter recommending me for a doctoral program and it wasn’t sealed. I distinctly remember reading it, as I read it I welled up with tears; and then I sealed it, and put it in the mail immediately. I only read it once thirty years ago.
Looking back there could have been times where that letter might have proved handy. On a dark day, I imagine, it might have helped, lifted me when I was down—given me a boost.
I don’t remember what it said; I just remember how I felt. He spoke of me in ways that I simply didn’t believe about myself, held me in esteem in ways I certainly didn’t see, and thought I could do much more that even now I doubt. Again, I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I remember this overwhelming since of affirmation, of praise, and confidence. He believed in me much more than I believed in myself and I felt uplifted.
To be honest, a part of me really wanted to dismiss this, say it was an exaggeration or misunderstanding or misplaced confidence. But as I sealed the envelop and put it in the mail, I thought: this man is really smart, much smarter than you will ever be, he is wise and has lived a lifetime and seen a great deal of the world and so on. Why would you doubt what he is saying?
Well, I can think of two reasons right off. There are two easy answers to that question. The first idea that floated through my head was to doubt the veracity of his assessment because I had not lived enough life to have a true measure of what he saw in me. I was too young, naïve, and inexperienced to look at life the way this man looked at the world and looked at me. Just didn't have such eyes to see. I doubted because I was not yet able to believe.
The other source of doubt I possessed, why I balked at the letter, is what I call the internal wiring of the Protestant tradition. The legacy of the wormy soul of Calvinism. You are a wretch, a worthless sinner, born in guilt and shame and cursed. You deserve nothing but wrath. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All have. This is true. But the tradition of Presbyterianism is to see this “fall” this “falling short” as falling really low. We really fall, fall to the abyss of complete depravity. Hence, no praise is trustworthy, no affirmation is accurate, no blessing is deserved. Grace is a gift ever in spite of us. What we deserve is wrath.
I confess that a part of me is glad this wormy soul view of humanity is fading, not the prevailing theory of the day. We are less than convinced today about the depravity of humankind despite the horrors of the 20th century. We are gaining a much more positive perspective, yet there is still something that lingers here, a deep sense that nags at many, a cloud of the 16th century that lingers over us. Not all the time, but sometimes for sure, we all struggle to believe we do not deserve wrath, what is more many struggle and don't believe we deserve to be loved, to be held in esteem. Lucky, maybe. But a sense of deserving of love, of grace? No. Too far.
My favorite scene of Mark Twain is when Huckleberry Finn is being punished for something he didn't do. Huck chooses to accept the punishment, he doesn't protest the unjust treatment. His rationale is that he has done so many other bad things and didn't get caught that maybe this is fair, a slight adjustment on his karmic balance sheet. Huck deserves some punishment even though his punisher got the crime wrong.
We all have a cosmic/karmic balance sheet in us. You hear it when I people say, I am trying to keep in the good, to keep in good graces, to do more good than bad. Unlike Huck I didn't add up the praises of my mentor and say, I deserve it. I liked what he said, and how it made me feel, but I struggled to trust this. Another part of the struggle is a bit more down to earth, not so much a matter of maturity or theology, but baseball, the last great lesson of baseball.
I grew up playing baseball; catch, pickle, three fly out, pick up games, little league. Baseball taught me many things, great lessons for life, but its last lesson is a kind of rite of passage.
The actor George Cluny described this in an interview. Cluny was good enough to try out for the Cincinnati Reds as a young man. The first try out didn't go well. But the next year he made it to the level of consideration where you have a shot. He had a shot to be signed by the Reds until he got into the batter's box and faced a curve ball pitched by a major leaguer. Cluny said he dove out of the box as the ball broke across the plate. He wasn't going to be a professional baseball player.
For me it wasn't anywhere near that level where I got the memo. It was simply the moment when pitches started coming fast. When the ball started to exceed 70 miles an hour, when the pitches were moving that fast I was not looking to hit the ball as much as I was hoping not to be hit by it. Recounting this to someone recently, they cut me off by saying, same. Absolute fear. Wasn't going to happen. That's when I quit.
Quitting baseball, or perhaps better said, quitting the notion that the majors was a possibility, quitting this dream when you realize there is no way I can hit that ball, its moving too fast, quitting at this point is a rite of passage beyond the grandiosity of childhood. All of sudden the luster of life is a bit dull, the ladder where you climb to glory is not yours; yours is a more a footstool for reaching things in the garage.
This last lesson of baseball is something that resurfaces when praise or acclaim or potential seems to be a stretch. How could I be thought of as worthy or owed such a shot when I can't hit a fast ball let alone a curve? There is a sense of not deserving such a shot. It's not for me, not what I am.
The idea of getting what you deserve is at the heart of our reading today. Barabbas doesn't get what he deserves. He was lucky. Barabbas was lucky the crowd chose him and not Jesus. This was not the act of God, it was luck. That Barabbas the rioting bandit would get another shot in life was not fate; it was fortune.
He was lucky the pharisees worked the Jerusalem crowd into a frenzy. The people were deceived and misled to shout "crucify him" at the one who healed the lame, fed the hungry, and gave hope to the poor. Barabbas was like the criminal crucified with Jesus who spoke of deserving punishment. "We deserve this" one crucified thief said to the other. No one would have blinked if Barabbas was crucified that day. We can debate capital punishment, but such was not the debate in Jerusalem the day Barabbas was set loose. Barabbas was lucky he didn't get what he deserved.
I know some folks don't believe in luck. Some folks have corrected me in conversations when I say things like "I was lucky." They make declarations about God and plans and purposes and making all things according to his will. God's hand comes up and God's mind. There is often a bit of concession offered by saying, it is not ours to know; or we cannot know the mind of God, but we cannot doubt the reasons of the Almighty either. And then there is a flourish, a declaration, I don't believe in luck. Most times I resist the temptation to say, "how unlucky of you," most times I can resist this, but not always.
Please don't half understand me here. I don't believe all things are a matter of luck or fortune. Oh, no. There are things that are a matter of fate and destiny, events where our lives are determined not by the roll of the dice, but by the hand of God, the genetics we inherit, the choices others make and even some we make. But not everything. There are moments and places and times and people that are not a matter of determination or purpose of God or anyone else. Somethings are best left to being Barabbas and given something you don't deserve because people made a bad choice that somehow gives you a new lease on life.
Each year at this time for the last 21 years we pause on 9/11. There are calls to "never forget." People recount where they were, how they heard. Some were close by, and some were meant to be there that day, to be with all those who died. For those who recount how they made it out or were called out or were just sick that day, there is what is called survivor's guilt. Why did I get to live and others did not?
Any attempt to answer this question with words like purpose or plan or will of God all become hallow. At some point destiny and fate fade away and you must accept with a sense of painful gratitude that you are alive and you have a chance to live while others do not. We all struggle here to answer how is it that I deserve this life, the more life others lost that day?
I believe God does have a plan; I believe the destiny of the world is determined by God. I do. God chooses love not wrath for us; God gives mercy not hatred if we are willing, able to believe such is true. We struggle with this like the prodigal struggled with the grace offered to him on his return. I don't deserve the robe the ring the kiss, I should be shunned. And those great words, the great choice of the father in the parable: how can I not rejoice, you were dead and now you are alive. Somehow you made it home.
I believe God has a plan for us when we open our hearts. The plan is to drive away fear, to bring us freedom where there was anger. On Tuesday or when the storm was over or because you turned right instead of left is not the plan; it's not part of the purpose. No. Life is filled with random, rolls of the dice where sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, events both beautiful and tragic where we are lucky or unlucky. That's not God's plan, not God's choice. The game is not rigged.
God's plan is that you live unto joy where we accept grace as deserved, not earned, not owed, deserved because we are loved and lifted out of falsity. God's choice is to redeem creation with love, to make us deserving. Amen.