Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

March 2001
Condemned man's drink
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column ACCORDING TO MATTHEW, the condemned Jesus is twice offered something to drink. The first time it is wine mixed with myrrh, generally reckoned to be a mild narcotic or something to lessen the suffering which he was about to endure. This offer he refused.

The second time, however, myrrh is not mentioned. Instead, Jesus appears to have been offered the cheap sour wine or vinegar that the soldiers might have had to hand for their own use. This episode is recorded in all four Gospels, presumably because the sponge on a stick was a memorable moment in the long ordeal of the crucifixion.

It was also significant to later readers who linked it up (as Jesus might have intended) with a passage in Psalm 69: "You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed... they gave me vinegar for my thirst." John's Gospel seems most pointed on this, mentioning that Jesus was fulfilling the scriptures.

But how ironic that Jesus, who promised that those who came to him would never thirst, now says that he is thirsty. And how ironic that the one who claims to be the living water receives cheap sour wine from a sponge on a stick. "He saved others, but he doesn't seem to be able to save himself."

How truly Paul wrote: "If the resurrection didn't really happen, then Christians are to be pitied." Jesus too held wine up and offered it to the dying. The first reversal is complete. But the cross is not the last reversal in the story. Easter is coming.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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