Every Christian worthy of the name knows both the speaker and the circumstance of this biblical quote. Yet, just as with the infancy stories, there are moments in the different passion narratives that are conflated in our minds in order to create one seamless time-line of events.
To begin with, this statement by Jesus appears only in the Gospel of St. John, while the story of wine being offered to Jesus appears in all of the narrations except that of St. Luke.
In John it is explicitly stated, and in Matthew and Mark it is strongly implied, that Jesus drank the wine. Yet, for most, if not all, of us, there is a memory of Jesus refusing what was offered to Him.
In both the Gospel of St. Matthew and of St. Mark, Jesus is twice presented with a sponge from which to drink, and it is only the second that He takes. The first, wine mixed with gall or myrrh as a narcotic to dull the pain, was, upon tasting, refused by Jesus. For Him, this was not the cup offered by the Father, the one accepted in the Garden of Gethsemane, the one that He needed to drink to the dregs for our salvation.
Later, as a final act before He died, Jesus is offered wine, unmixed, in response to His statement, “I thirst.” The word “thirst” had been uttered before by Jesus, but within the context of the Beatitudes as spoken in Matthew’s description of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed (happy) are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
Here we have a link to help us understand the deeper, spiritual meaning of this simple declaration of a physical need. Jesus sends a message to those on Calvary, as well as all who would become His followers, about the relationship between His situation and that of a righteous man in a sinful world.
St. Augustine notes in The City of God that a good man, though a slave, is free. Jesus takes that truth one great step further: a man who thirsts for righteousness, though nailed to a cross, is blessed, happy. Jesus even doubles-down on this conviction several beatitudes later:
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
And thus they persecuted Him and so many of His faithful disciples in the following centuries, even to this day.
In his passion narrative, St. John – the only apostolic witness to these events – relates three of what have come to be known as the Seven Last Words from the Cross. In addition to “I thirst” there is “Woman behold your son…behold your mother,” and “It is finished.”
John creates for us a triptych of statements, and in doing so he sums up the entire life of Christ. Mary begins the work of salvation at the Annunciation and upon the Cross Jesus completes it – joined by Mary and her adopted son, representing each of us as beloved disciples, at her side.
Between those two events is the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes and the statement concerning thirsting for righteousness and what will happen to the person of righteousness.
Certainly, the words from the Cross can – and must be – associated with Matthew 25, the Judgement of the Nations, where Jesus divides the sheep from the goats using, among others, the criterion of “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”
Salvation, happiness, beatitude rely on our response to Jesus in the guise of our neighbor, but that includes more than the satisfaction of physical needs. That is why we are called to practice both the corporal and spiritual works of Mercy.
Only when we attend to both the physical and spiritual needs of our world can we claim to be beloved disciples and adopted daughters and sons. And only when both of those needs are satisfied will the work of Jesus from the Cross be truly finished.