Look! My servant whom I have chosen,
My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased!
I will put my Spirit upon him
And judgment to the nations he will announce.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And smoldering flax he will not quench,
Until he sends forth judgment to victory;
And in his name nations will trust. — Matthew 12:18-21
These words, slightly modified from Isaiah 42, are often quoted in connection with Jesus’ compassion, and compassion certainly is present in this context. Jesus heals the multitudes who follow him (12:15).
But Matthew quotes this passage from Isaiah with something else in mind. The Pharisees are plotting to destroy Jesus (12:14), but Jesus’ response is not to destroy them in return. Instead, he withdraws. When the crowds follow him, he heals them but he also hushes them. He warns them not to make him known, Matthew says, so that “it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet,” and then he quotes the words above.
Who are the bruised reed and the smoking flax?
In Isaiah, “bruised reed” is the Assyrian ambassador’s term for Egypt: “You are trusting in the staff of this bruised reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (Isa. 36:6; cf. Ezek. 29:6). A bruised reed makes a bad staff because it snaps and the sharp end is driven into your hand.
And smoldering flax? Flax here is a wick and if it’s smoldering it’s about to go out and leave you in the darkness.
These aren’t simply images of weakness. They aren’t images of the multitudes who need healing. Rather, they are images of things that let you down, things you should have been able to count on but which fail you, which leave you in the lurch, which even cause you pain and make you helpless.
The bruised reed and the smoldering flax in the context of Matthew 12, then, are not the multitudes who follow Jesus. Instead, they are the Pharisees. They were zealous for God’s covenant and Jesus ought to have been able to lean on them. But they are bruised reeds that will snap and pierce his hand. The Pharisees are associated in the Gospels with the synagogue, which is an offshoot of the temple where God’s lamp burns. Their light should have illuminated Jesus and his work. But like the wicks in the lamp in Eli’s day (1 Sam. 3:3), they are smoldering wicks which will leave Jesus in darkness.
And Jesus lets them.
He doesn’t break the bruised reed. He doesn’t snuff out the smoldering wick. He doesn’t destroy those who would harm him. He doesn’t quarrel and cry out and shout down his enemies, nor does he allow the crowd of his followers to do it. Instead, he allows himself to be let down by the very people he should have been able to trust. He allows them to pierce his hand and leave him in darkness.
This refusal to break bruised reeds and snuff out smoldering wicks, the refusal to destroy those who threaten or betray him, will lead to Jesus’ death but not to Jesus’ defeat. It is precisely by suffering this injustice that he will establish justice in the world.
In fact, in Isaiah 42:4, which Matthew doesn’t quote here, Yahweh promises that the servant will not be “bruised” and will not be “quenched”: the very same words used for the reed and the flax. You can lean on him and he won’t splinter and pierce your hand. You can trust him to keep giving light. He allows himself to be let down so that he won’t let you down, so that his mission will succeed, so that the nations will trust in his name.
We are united to him. We share in his identification as God’s beloved, chosen servant. God has placed his Spirit on us so that we can carry out Jesus’ mission to establish God’s just rule among the nations. And therefore we also must share his demeanor until he sends forth justice to victory.