The Rev. Roger Coleman, Pilgrim Church in Kansas City, Mo.: It was not unusual for family members to offer wine as a sedative to ease the suffering of those condemned to die upon the cross. For the Roman soldier to imitate this act of compassion by putting a sponge soaked in wine and gall on the tip of his spear and holding it up to Jesus’ mouth, as the writer of Matthew makes clear, was not an act of mercy but one of shear mockery.
In fact, Matthew uses “mockery” earlier in the chapter to describe the behavior of the soldiers before leading Jesus to the cross: “And they spit upon him and took the reed and beat him upon the head. And then they mocked him. . . .”
At the time Matthew was compiling his gospel, almost 100 years after the crucifixion, Judea was under the rule of the Roman Empire. To have portrayed a Roman in a caring role would have alienated his audience and undercut his larger purpose of trying to maintain the belief in Jesus as the Messiah within the Jewish faith. Oppressed people do not extol the virtues of their oppressors. Jesus rejects the soldier’s offer.
To hold together this fragile relationship between Jesus and Judaism, Matthew draws from Psalms 69:31: “They gave me also gall for my food, and in my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.”
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If one wants to find mercy in this story, it is in the words of Jesus as he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Mercy for the persecutor, not the victim, is the radical nature of the crucifixion story.
The Rev. Joe Nassal, priest at Precious Blood Center in Liberty, Mo.: Since Jesus was a victim of cruel and unusual punishment – crucifixion was the form of the death penalty reserved for the most despicable of criminals and heinous of crimes – anything done to Jesus during his torture and execution is often interpreted as further degradation and humiliation.
So when the soldier soaks a sponge in “cheap wine” and tries to make him drink, it is often seen as a way to silence him from perceived blasphemy because he has just cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27, 46)?”
But earlier in the gospel, just after Jesus arrives at Golgotha after he was mocked, stripped and forced to carry his cross to the execution site, “they gave him a drink of wine flavored with gall, which he tasted and refused to drink (27, 34).”
Scholars suggest that this follows the book of Proverbs where it is written, “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to the sorely depressed (31, 6),” as a way to ease the suffering of the condemned prisoner.
Since crucifixion was excruciatingly painful, it can be seen as an act of mercy. By tasting the wine, Jesus acknowledges this small gesture of kindness. But by refusing to drink gall, the narcotic that might help to numb his pain, Jesus chose to experience the worst of human suffering.