"And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas." -- ST LUKE xxiii.18.
You have heard a crowd of people cry out all at once. It is always impressive, it is sometimes very terrible, occasionally it is sublime. It begins in a way that no one can explain. Somebody in the crowd utters a name, or ejaculates a brief sentence. What happens? Often nothing at all. Men are not in the mood for it; it drops unnoticed, or provokes a jeer or two and is then forgotten. But sometimes the word falls like a spark on a mass of dry tinder -- ten thousand hearts have been prepared for it -- swift as a flash of lightning a sympathetic current passes through the whole throng -- ten thousand lips take up the cry. They are all carried away by contagion, magnetism, or madness, and a shout goes up enough to rend the sky. When some great and noble sentiment has laid hold of them, the shout of a people is one of the grandest things on earth; when it is some awful prejudice, unreasoning hatred, or cowardly terror that sways them, the shout is the most inhuman and hellish thing on earth; and that was the character of the shout that was raised here.
The world has never forgotten that cry, and never will. To the very last the world will wonder how it should have come to be raised, and will condemn and pity the crowd of people who gave themselves up to it, for they were making a hero of the vilest stuff, and clamouring for the murder of the world's one Divine man. There never was a more brutal and insane shout than that; never again can there be a choice so fatal and so suicidal as the choice they made: "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas."
If the thing had not happened, we should say it was impossible. It seems well-nigh incredible that human eyes and human hearts could be so blind. A story of this kind is food for the bitterest cynic. He who has the most utter contempt for the race to which he belongs might find here almost a justification of his scorn. Oh what a satire upon human nature, that a whole city full of people, men, women, mothers and daughters, had come to this pass that they could not discern which was the nobler of these two -- nay, thought that Barabbas was more deserving of their honour. One the very flower and crown of humanity, the express image of God; and the other a gaol bird, a notorious criminal, whose hands had been dyed red, and whose heart had been hardened by the shedding of blood. Well might those pitiful lips say, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Why did they do it? Why did they raise their voices for Barabbas?
The main answer is that men make their heroes as the heathen make gods, after their own image. There is no doubt that Barabbas was more to the taste of this people, more according to their heart, than Christ; or at least they thought he was; not quite their ideal man, perhaps, but certainly nearer to their ideal than the Christ whom they rejected. It may be that they had had no particular love for him until just now, possibly they had hardly thought of him at all; but now it was a question between this man and Jesus, and Jesus they did not want at any price. And their very hatred of the one made the other look beautiful. Barabbas is our man, they said, and the more they said it the more they believed it; and each time the name was repeated it sounded sweeter, until they were all shouting it, nine-tenths of them because the others shouted it, and until they really made themselves believe that in this man they had got a veritable hero and hardly less than a god.
That is always what happens in such cases, the greater part begin shouting for no particular reason because a few others have led the way, and they end by believing that the man whom they are acclaiming is almost divine; yet it is certain that they elected this man on the whole because of the two he had more points in common with them, this poor despicable and very unheroic thing was the person whom they delighted to honour because they themselves were very unheroic and somewhat despicable. We cannot see the greatness of a truly great man unless there is just a bit of greatness in ourselves; Christ was too big and too divine to be seen and measured by their small and vulgar eyes. Barabbas was about their size, and they raised their voices for him.
We have had Carlyle's words quoted to us a thousand times about heroes and hero-worship -- how it is part of human nature to go after heroes and make them -- how the world has always been given up to this worship, and always will be. We all revere and follow great men, or those whom we deem great, which is not quite the same thing. And it is a beautiful feature in human nature if it is wisely directed, if we can only set our hearts on the true heroes and follow them. It is not beautiful at all when we make our gods of clay, and shout ourselves hoarse in exalting to the skies creatures as undivine and quite as small as we are.
Heroes are sometimes easily made to-day, and martyrs too. Modern martyrdom of the popular sort is about the least costly thing going. It calls for no tears and blood, it can be gained on very easy terms. You have only to break a law which you do not like, or your conscience does not approve, and to be brought up for it with an admiring crowd accompanying you, and to have a fine imposed, which is paid for, perhaps, by popular subscription -- and lo, you are a martyr. I am not calling in question the thing itself. It may be both right and Christian to refuse obedience to a law on extreme occasions; but to call this martyrdom is extravagant and almost humorous.
It was not so in the olden time when the real martyrs were made. No, those martyrs were not delicately handled, but stripped and stoned to pieces, and burned, and there were no crowds to greet them with bravoes and caresses, but furious mobs clamouring for their blood. We have changed all that indeed, thank God: but they were heroes and martyrs indeed, and it sounds to me somewhat like a desecration of the word to apply it to men and even women who are good, probably brave in a way, but who win their crown of glory very cheaply indeed. If we are to have heroes, let us make sure that they possess some heroic stuff.
There is a vast amount of hero-worship to-day which reminds us too much of that shout for Barabbas. We are glorifying the wrong people; at least, most of us are. It is one of the deplorable weaknesses of the times, or if you like it better, it is one of the fashions or crazes to which human nature at times gives itself up. The heroes of the crowd, of the great mass of people, are not the good men, not the men of light and leading, not the men who are morally great or even intellectually great, not the men who are the strength and salt of a nation, but the men who minister to its pleasures, and lead the way in sports. No one can have any doubt of that. No one can have any doubt about the sort of persons whom the vast majority of young people, and some older people too, delight to honour. With some it is the star of the music hall or opera. With a great many more it is the winner of a race, or the champion player in a successful football team, or the most effective bowler, or the highest scorer in cricket. The crowd goes mad about these heroes. There is no throne high enough to place them on. Money and favours are lavished at their feet, and all the newspapers are full of their glorious triumphs.
Mark I am not speaking against athletic sports. I like to see a well and honestly played game, and I would join in the clapping when a man makes a clever stroke. What I object to is the crazy and almost delirious worship which is given to these champions of the sporting world. It is the excess of the thing that proves a diseased state of mind. There is more fuss made over some youth who scores a few hundreds on the cricket-field, than there would be over a man who had saved six hundred lives. In hundreds of journals his portrait appears, and his doings are chronicled as if he had wrought some deliverance for the nation. Poor lad, it is not his fault that he has sprung up suddenly into fame, it is the fault of the people who love to have these things so. It is because men have gone pleasure-mad and sport-mad, and in their madness cannot see the difference between a clever athlete and a mental or moral giant. We prove what our own tastes are, we prove the quality of our own hearts and minds, we prove our own debasement, when we exalt physical strength above excellence of character, when we make our heroes out of muscle instead of soul, when we worship those who serve our pleasure more than those who set us examples of noble things, and lead the way in them. It is only another rendering of the old shout, "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas." Not so wicked, of course, but equally foolish and unworthy.
Who are your heroes? That is the question. Or in other words, What sort of men do you admire most? Answer that, and I know at once what sort of men and women you are. If you are worshippers of pleasure, the champions of the pleasure-world will be your idols and kings. If you are rooted and grounded in the love of lucre, the successful millionaire is the man that you will fawn upon or worship from afar. If your main delight is in intellectual things, the great thinkers and writers will be the men to whom you look up with reverence. And if you are good men, with a passionate love for goodness, and a constant striving to be better than you are, there are none whom you will admire with all your hearts except the good, except the best, and those who are leading in the way of goodness.
In a land which is truly Christian, the only heroes will be those who most resemble Christ. If we are truly Christians, and Christian thoughts have taken full possession of our hearts, we shall recognise no heroes save those who serve as Christ served, who live in a measure as Christ lived, who deny themselves for others, and spend their strength for the benefit of their fellow-men as the Master did. These are the true heroes, and all the others are more or less cheap imitations of them, or false substitutes for them. These are the true heroes, I say. The men and women who risk their lives to save other lives. The men who use their strength and ability, not for pay, but for the good and the advancement of their fellow-men, to save men from their sins, and to lessen the sum of human ill. The brave men and women who venture all things to serve some great and righteous cause, and to speed on the Kingdom of Christ and righteousness in the world.
We have no right to count any as heroes unless they have courage, patience, self-denial, great love for their fellow-men, and strength which they cheerfully employ for something greater than themselves. The men, in fact, who have something of Christ in them; these are the only heroes whom God writes down in His book of life, and they are the only heroes whom we shall exalt in our hearts if we are followers of the crucified One.
In a Christian land, the beginning and end of all true and healthy hero-worship, is to set Christ first and above everything else and every one else in our affections. We shall measure all other men truly if we have first of all taken the true measure of Him. Love Him with all your hearts, say of Him, "Thou art the chief among ten thousand, and the altogether lovely," and you will never give much of your hearts again to the things and the men who are morally not worth loving. You will never be carried away again into the worship of that which is false, common, or cheap. A man who sees all beauty, and the perfect beauty in Christ, will never say that there is much beauty anywhere else, except where there is something that resembles Christ.
We have to make our choice to-day, as those men made it long ago. It is not quite the same choice. It is not Barabbas against Christ, but it is the poor, coarse, common, frivolous things of the world against Christ. It is the earthly against the heavenly; it is pleasure and sin against the service of the Man who was crucified: it is the love of self, and things baser than ourselves, against the love of Him who died for us. And everything depends upon that choice. To make Him your King is to become kingly yourselves, and to be crowned at last with the true glory and honour. But it is a terrible thing to say, "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas."