THE SENDING OF JESUS TO HEROD was fruitless, except, Saint Luke tells us, that it brought about friendship between Pilate and Herod, who had long been enemies. The procurator, indeed, had not hoped to escape responsibility by bringing the case before Herod, for the Jewish king had no real civil or religious jurisdiction. But Pilate had expected that Herod would at least confirm His own judgment of Christ’s innocence and declare that Jesus had caused no disorders in the tetrarchy. As it was, he had to be content with the assumption, based on Herod’s treatment of the prisoner, that the king did not take the charges seriously.
Faced again with the troublesome case, Pilate summoned the Jews, the chief priests and the rulers, to report to them his latest findings. “You have brought before me this man,” he said, “as one who perverts the people; and behold, I upon examining Him in your presence have found no guilt in this man as touching those things of which you accuse Him. Neither has Herod; for I sent you back to him, and behold, nothing deserving of death has been committed by Him. I will therefore chastise Him and release Him.”
He presumed that the mob would be satisfied with his scourging Jesus. He knew that even this punishment was not justified, but it had been his experience that a show of violence was often useful in quelling disorders among the people.
The move was unsuccessful, however. They stood looking at him in silence, stony-eyed, and he began searching for a new expedient.
There was a tradition among the Jews of releasing a prisoner on the paschal feast, a symbol, perhaps, of their own escape from the bondage of Egypt. Some of those present now began calling on Pilate to observe this custom, and it occurred to him that this might be the means of disposing of his problem. To force the choice he desired, he decided to offer to release to the people either Christ, who had, he knew, a considerable following, or the robber Barabbas, a Zealot who had been imprisoned for committing a murder during a riot, possibly the riot which had taken place the previous December and which was reported to Jesus while He was teaching near Jerusalem.
Signaling for the crowd to be silent, Pilate said, “You have a custom that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Whom do you wish that I release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
He waited an answer, confident that the masses would speak for Christ and defeat the plans of their leaders. But the priests were already moving about through the throng, stirring up opposition to Christ and arousing sympathy for Barabbas. When the people responded, therefore, they cried out, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!”
While Pilate was holding court he had received a message from his wife regarding Jesus. “Have nothing to do with that just man,” she warned him, “for I have suffered many things in a dream today because of Him.”
The procurator had originally been favorably disposed toward Christ as a victim of the squabbling factions whom he despised. The whole affair was now becoming rather tiresome, but moved by his wife’s words, he appealed to the crowd again, saying, “What then do you want me to do to the king of the Jews?”
But they shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Now Pilate sat erect in his seat of judgment and said in angry tones, “Why, what evil has this man done? I find no crime deserving of death in Him. I will therefore chastise Him and release Him.” He was disgusted with this bloodthirsty rabble and the hypocritical leaders who were inciting them; they were set on turning this great feast of theirs into a Roman holiday, and through some perversity they had chosen for execution the most guiltless man among them.
He gave the order for Barabbas’ release, then sat back, musing. What could he do to keep these mad dogs from their prey? He looked up at Jesus, who stood waiting patiently beside him. The prisoner had had no sleep for the last thirty hours, had undergone two grueling sessions with the Sanhedrin, and had suffered God knows what indignities at the hands of Herod and his barbarian mercenaries. His eyelids drooped and His face was stained with dirt and blood from the blows He had suffered. The cheap, ill-fitting robe in which Herod had attired Him added a grotesque note to His tragic appearance. If the Jews had wished merely to humiliate Christ, they might well have been satisfied with the sight of this pitiful figure. But, as Pilate knew, their blood-lust would never be sated by this spectacle, and he called his guards and ordered them to take Jesus out and scourge Him. Perhaps the sight of their victim half beaten to death would dissuade them from the final violence they contemplated.
Scourging, or flagellatio, very commonly administered preceding crucifixion, was one of the most excruciating punishments known. It was a punishment for slaves and subject peoples, being considered too degrading for a Roman citizen. The metal-tipped thongs of the whip were designed to tear and mangle the flesh; when the scourging was completed, the victim was often left maimed or disemboweled; at best he was pathetically disfigured and was half dead from pain and loss of blood. Jewish law limited the flogging to thirty-nine blows, but no such limitation was imposed on Roman soldiers when they executed a scourging. They were to continue the punishment until they were weary or, as sometimes happened, until the subject of their exercise died.
Meditation: Human life is made up of a series of choices. They are not always as serious as the choice between Christ and Barabbas. But every choice we make is a step toward God or away from Him; every choice we make is according to His will or against His will. If confronted with a decision between Christ or Barabbas, we think we would unhesitatingly choose Christ. But in the multiple choices of every day, are we always willing to choose Christ?
Information from The Life of Christ “Our Lord’s Life with Lesson in His Own Words for Our Life Today” The Catholic Press, Inc. 1959. 263-266. © 1954 edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell, MASTD and Jex Martin, following mainly A Chronological Harmony of the Gospels by Stephen J Hartdegen OFM NIHIL OBSTAT John A McMahon; IMPRIMATUR Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago August 1, 1953. Print. Drawing by Albert H Winkler.