Lord of the Bruised

A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory.

-Matthew 12:20Reeds

I want that kind of heart. I want to look at a bruised reed and feel protective, appreciating its fragility and its potential. Without that, everything else seems empty.

These words from Isaiah 42, re-quoted in Matthew, are interesting, aren’t they? “A bruised reed He will not break.” Matthew cites this as a prophetic reference to Jesus, and it’s important to note this description comes right after a heated discussion between the Lord and the Pharisees.

It all started because the disciples were hungry, so they plucked up heads of grain to eat. Nothing wrong with that. But it was the Sabbath, and although the Law of Moses didn’t really say so, the Pharisees (always on the lookout for an infraction) considered even the plucking of grain to be a form of reaping. Therefore it was a form of labor, which was of course forbidden on the day of rest.

So off they went, accusing the hungry disciples of defiling a holy day, when Jesus reminded them that human need trumps man-made tradition. Which pressed all the wrong buttons, because that’s when, according to verse 14, the Pharisees starting plotting to kill this troublemaker.

But the troublemaker was more tender than radical, at least to my thinking. Because Matthew then applies Isaiah’s description to Him, noting His regard for the most vulnerable by using bruised reeds as illustration.

These were marsh reeds, very common to the area, and quite fragile. They were used to fashion flutes, measuring rods, and writing instruments, so their potential was obvious. But they broke easily and, because they were so common, they were also easily discarded.

Not by Him, though, and that’s where I want to park for a minute.

His Bruised Sheep

Jesus is the Lord of the least, a friend to the bruised. If I follow Him, then I’m expected to know not only His teachings, but His heart, and if my own doesn’t lean towards the wounded and the vulnerable, then there’s a real disconnect between me and Him.

Now there’s the obvious “least” – the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick. Remembering them is a no-brainer, so yes, I support responsible charities, participate in prison ministry, and visit the ill. That’s pretty basic stuff. But there are plenty of high-functioning wounded folks who, despite their stability or status, still qualify as The Least.

Their feelings are easily hurt, so they’re often written off as too “high maintenance.” They’re not good schmoozers, so you’ll find them sitting alone at church. Some are so passive you can spend an hour in the same room without knowing they’re there. But in fact they’re everywhere, these “Least.” We all know a few of them. The question is, how do we regard them?

Because they’re more than reeds. They’re flutes, measuring rods, and writing instruments in the making. They’re valued first because of who they are as objects of God’s love, and secondly, for what they can and so often do become.

The Reeds Among Us

I oughta know, having spent years in the School of Bruised Reeds. Anyone who knew me as a kid could have logically slapped the loser label on me, and I’d have agreed with them. I was painfully shy, very much a loner, totally insecure in social situations, way too sensitive, and scared to speak up. That much was obvious to anyone who knew me.

What wasn’t obvious was the sexual abuse happening for years, which my poor parents were completely unaware of, and the depression, drug abuse, and marked anxiety that followed, all of which would take years of effort (not to mention thousands of dollars in therapy) to deal with. The social neurosis was obvious, but the inner wounds were my well-guarded secret. Sometimes we bruised reeds aren’t so easily detected, much less understood.

So I’ve been on the lonely side of the gym with the other wallflowers. But now, from a position of much more solid ground (though I’m still a flop at the schmoozing thing) I can easily forget what bruises feel like.

But I’d rather not, and that, along with this verse, has got me thinking. I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been feeling a little shallow; a little clueless and careless when it comes to Bruised Reeds. Now I’m not Mother Teresa, and I’ve earned my cynicism, which isn’t gonna fade anytime soon. But when dealing with the people I’m privileged to deal with, through family, church, professional life, or whatever, I sense that I’ve lost my radar for The Least, and I’d like it back.

Because when someone’s hurt, it matters to Him. If I’m able to ease that hurt, I’d best see that as a mandate rather than an option. Sound doctrine is high on my priority list, right alongside having the right positions on the vital issues. And yet – hey, weren’t those also high priorities to the Pharisees? Truth without love can crush the reed, through neglect or abuse, just as love without truth can deceive it into driving off a cliff. Surely we can do better than either extreme; surely we don’t have to neglect compassion in the interest of conviction.

Anyway, for whatever reason, bruised reeds are on my mind today. And I hope they stay there a while.


  1. Good and important words, Joe! So many “reeds” are broken on the inside where it’s not obvious. Only through His lens can we see what needs to be healed.

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