On Bruised Reeds and Smoking Wicks

In our reading for today in Matthew 12, Jesus is locked into an unusually nasty debate with the Pharisees over a healing he does on the Sabbath. I say unusually nasty debate because after they lose, they decide to kill Jesus (12:14). Talk about your sore losers! Jesus withdraws, but he doesn’t exactly go low profile— He goes around healing the sick (12:15-16). Why does Jesus heal so many sick? Is he showing His power and identity as the Christ? Not this timed— he tells the people He heals to kept his identity quiet. No, Jesus often heals the sick out of compassion for the weak. That is Matthew’s point here, and he points us to a quotation from Isaiah 42 (Matthew 12:15-21)

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
"Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

The Messiah would not be a rabble-rouser in the streets who calls attention to Himself. He would rather be one who shows compassion to the broken and the weak. Matthew applies two metaphors from Isaiah to Jesus--

  • “A bruised reed he will not break.” Reeds were bamboo-like plants that tall and straight enough to be used as measuring sticks and walking canes. But if one of the hollow canes became bruised or bent, then it was useless. The bruised reed here refers to weak people; Jesus was gentle in his dealings with the weak. He does not break bruised reeds.

  • “A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Light in Bible times was provided by oil lamps, which were often little more than clay bowls filled with oil with a flax strip serving as the wick of this lamp. This kind of lamp wouldn’t hold a candle to lamps of today (sorry), but it did give off some light. If oil burned out of the bowl, the flax wick would begin to burn and smoke. It then had to be snuffed out and replaced. The Christ was gentle with broken people; rather than snuff out the smoking wick, He would endure the irritation and gently replenish the oil.

Early in the chapter, the Pharisees attacked Jesus’ disciples because they dared to pluck grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath. One doesn’t find picky technical violations like that unless one is constantly on the look for them, and the Pharisees were more than happy to point out the flaws to Jesus. They delighted in condemning the weaknesses of others… you know the type. Jesus the Messiah is tolerant of weak people. He doesn’t commend our flaws, but neither does He condemn us because of them. He came to seek and save the lost; weak and broken people are His specialty.

The church hasn’t always been so good at being gentle with weak and broken people. Someone has suggested that the church is the only army that shoots its wounded. That might be harsh; that also might be true. We need to be better at caring for the weak and broken among us because that is what Jesus did. Condemnation, gossip and accusation-- those were the specialties of the Pharisees.