Gentle Jesus and the Compassion Conspiracy
The metaphor seems self-evident. “Bruised reeds are people who are broken and needy, people worn out and tired and exhausted with life’s circumstances, people neglected by the world, but accepted by Jesus.” We casually toss the phrase out like a trump-suit ace impervious to counter-play. No need to explain; just assert: “Jesus never broke a bruised reed.”
But have you considered why the reed doesn’t get broken? Look at the text carefully, and you might find you’ve become a little too familiar with this biblical phrase and perhaps have missed a profound point. In fact, hastily assuming the “what” may have obscured your insight into the “why.”
Where to Find the Bruised Reed
The phrase in question is found in Isaiah 42:3 and quoted in Matthew 12:20. Isaiah 42 speaks of God’s servant: upheld, chosen, and delighted in by God. This servant has God’s Spirit and will bring justice to all nations. In the process, this servant will neither break a bruised reed nor quench a faintly burning wick. Matthew applies this messianic text to Jesus’s ministry: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Behold, my servant whom I have chosen. . .’” (Matthew 12:17–21).
Matthew sandwiches this quotation between two healings. First, Jesus restores a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9–14). Then, he casts out a demon to enable a blind and mute captive to speak and see (Matthew 12:22).
We rightly marvel at Jesus’s deep compassion. We rightly delight in his commitment to the down-and-out of society, and we rightly long to imitate his works of service and provision. We rightly praise the one who brought hope and healing to those who had none.
But is the point of the bruised reed image Jesus’s compassion? Should we identify weak, lowly, or otherwise hurting people as the “bruised reeds” who weren’t — and thus shouldn’t be — “broken”? Interpreting the metaphor this way is often assumed rather than argued, but perhaps we’ve grown too familiar with it and should take another look.
Another Look at Isaiah
Look back at Isaiah 42 and consider the stanza’s logic. Isaiah introduces the Spirit-filled, soul-delighting servant (Isaiah 42:1) and describes his demeanor: “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isaiah 42:2). Isaiah illustrates the servant’s demeanor with the reed and wick metaphors (Isaiah 42:3a). He repeats the servant’s mission to bring forth justice (Isaiah 42:1b, 3b) and highlights the servant’s extraordinary perseverance (Isaiah 42:4). According to the logic, the servant’s quiet, public restraint is what leads him not to break a bruised reed or quench a faintly burning wick.
In other words, the bruised reed image paints a poetic picture of the surprisingly effective caution and quietness of God’s servant who brings justice.
I say “surprisingly effective” because of how unusual it is for God to do anything quietly:
“Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice . . . let them shout from the top of the mountains . . . let them give glory to the Lord and declare his praise in the coastlands” (verses 11–12).
“The Lord goes out like a mighty man . . . he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes” (verse 13).
“For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor” (verse 14).
God will have his moment of ear-splitting vindication, but for a time he will work justice in all the earth through one who is quiet, restrained, and inconspicuous.
Another Look at Matthew
When Jesus healed the man’s withered hand, the chief result was that “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14). Jesus was not giving in to this conspiracy. His hour to be destroyed had not yet come — “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah . . . ” (Matthew 12:15–17).
The unbreaking of bruised reeds — and the unquenching of smoldering wicks — had less to do with Jesus’s compassion for hurting people, and more to do with his need for secrecy. He had to bring forth justice, but for a time, he also had to leave no trace of it. He didn’t want those conspiring Pharisees following his tracks through the Palestinian countryside, cutting short his time to accomplish all his Father had given him to do.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees and scribes hunt Jesus down. They pursue. They initiate. They question. They argue. Because Jesus’s ministry grows in effectiveness, he can’t eliminate his PR footprint. Yet after each confrontation, Jesus withdraws. He departs. He leaves them alone and goes somewhere else. We could say he tiptoes through the reeds, not breaking even the bruised ones, and he creeps circumspectly to prevent his draft from extinguishing candles — even those barely smoldering. His messianic mission had a noteworthy ninja element.
That is, until he goes up to Jerusalem for the final time (Matthew 20:17). His disciples must not mistake his intentions, nor must we: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18–19). The time has come for this servant to pick a fight in public and get himself killed.
Why It Matters
Thanks to the Puritan Richard Sibbes, the question, “What is the bruised reed?” often goes unasked and is simply assumed. Sibbes’s classic work The Bruised Reed has much that will profit us, but when we look at the context to answer the question, we uncover an even more important question: “Why was the reed not broken?” Isaiah 42:3 isn’t shorthand for “Jesus was gentle with worn-out people.” It’s a poetic picture of a resolute servant who sneaks by unnoticed, accomplishing God’s will amid the shadows of opposition.
Of course, people need compassion. Wisdom often means listening with kindness when people suffer (Job 6:14). But they also need to be broken, and better now than later (Matthew 21:44). Fear of “breaking a bruised reed” isn’t reason to hold back speaking the truth in love and thus helping people grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15).