“It is Finished”, the final words of Jesus spoken from the cross just before his death, according to John’s gospel (19:30). In verse 28 John quotes what he understands to be Jesus’ penultimate words “I am thirsty”, and he is the only gospel writer to include this quote. Before this penultimate quote John has included a parenthetical comment “in order to fulfill the scripture.” This parenthetical comment is often overlooked, but has been inserted by the gospel writer to point us to his larger meaning; lest we miss it! With this inserted comment John is alluding to Psalm 69: 19-21.
19 You know the insults I receive,
And my shame and dishonor;
My foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart,
So that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
And for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food,
And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
While two other gospels writers (Matthew & Mark) include the scene where the sponge is dipped in sour wine and lifted to Jesus on a stick for him to drink, John is the only one that highlights this event. John initiates the description of the giving of sour wine to Jesus with a quote from Jesus, “I am thirsty”. John concludes this short epic with our traditional language around communion “When Jesus had received the wine” followed by Jesus’ final words “It is finished”, and an ultimate narrative comment “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
Given the allusion to Psalm 69:19-21 coupled with the final breath of Jesus on the cross I would like to suggest that John has created a double entendre . Jesus’ last words, according to John, certainly point to the last moments of Jesus’ life, but they also point to an extreme shift from the old ways of dealing with hatred and violence to a new way. “It is finished” also speaks to the Psalm 69 passage. After verse 21, Psalm 69 shifts into, what was at the time of the writing of this Psalm, the typical response to enemy attack and violence, mainly imprecations. Note the language of verses 22-29:
22 Let their table be a trap for them,
A snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
And make their loins tremble continually.
24 Pour out your indignation upon them,
And let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation;
Let no one live in their tents.
26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down,
And those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.
27 Add guilt to their guilt;
May they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
Let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
29 But I am lowly and in pain;
Let your salvation, O God, protect me.
In his telling of the crucifixion story, John, the last of the gospel writers, building off of the gospel stories that had come before his own, emphasized the insertion found in Luke’s telling, “Father forgive them ; for they do not know what they are doing”, (23:34) by ending the reading of Psalm 69 at verse 21.
21 . . . and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
“It is finished”
In other words, no more! We shall no longer meet violence with imprecation. We shall no longer call down the wrath of God upon our enemies. We shall no longer include in our lament the cry for God to pour indignation upon those who accuse and attack us. John’s depiction of the death scene signals the end to the theology of retributive justice, i.e., an eye for an eye justice.
The death of Jesus on the cross, according to John, is a call to non-violent resistance against the evil of the world, a call to forgiveness, and a call to resurrection into a new way of living. It is a call to restorative justice.
May we see, may we hear, may we practice.
LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament