Quality control is vitally important in any business. In the production of any item – from cars to cakes (Top Gear to Bake Off), perfection is required, or as close to perfection as can be achieved. Woe betide any supplier if a customer receives something he considers to be substandard. It will be returned quick smart, complaints will be aired and, in these days of social media, there may well be negative postings on the firm’s web site to ensure that the failure is as widely publicised as possible.
We might have no quarrel with quality control in business, but increasingly the same attitude is being applied to people. So, we are told, only those who fully measure up should be allowed to be born, and the substandard, for their own and everybody else’s benefit, should be disposed of. After all, they will consume scarce resources and require extra care, they may well contribute little to society, families and carers will be worn down, and they themselves will probably be unhappy. All good reasons to exercise the kind of quality control that advances in medicine now make possible and ensure that the imperfect are quietly disposed of. Inevitably the ‘imperfect’ are devalued, and who is imperfect depends on society’s current standards for a valuable life.
The attitude of the church of Jesus Christ ought to be entirely different, because the attitude of the Saviour she follows is entirely different. In imitating him, the church will increasingly stand out from the surrounding culture. Rather than disposing of those who do not measure up, Christ provides grace for the struggling. His ministry is vividly depicted in the words of Matthew 12:20 (quoting Isaiah 42): ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory’.
The word-pictures are striking and would have been very familiar to Matthew’s readers. Reeds, used for everything from pens and flutes to measuring rods and floor coverings, are fragile and easily damaged. Wicks, made of linen, allowed oil lamps to produce some light but were often of poor quality and produced more smoke than light. Bruised reeds and smoking wicks were readily viewed as useless and more bother than they were worth.
The lesson, of course, is not one regarding reeds and wicks. The passage from Isaiah describes ‘my servant whom I have chosen’ – God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. The context here is of Jesus healing the sick (verse 15) and so clearly bruised reeds and smouldering flaxes are people, fragile and vulnerable people, damaged and struggling people. And in one way or another we are all strugglers – for physical reasons (illness, declining faculties), for psychological reasons (anxiety, grief, depression, mental health problems), for spiritual reasons (doubt, temptation, failure). Often all three are mixed together to weigh us down. It can seem hopeless.
The verse, however, is a message of good news. In a world where bruised reeds and smouldering wicks would usually be thrown out and replaced, we are assured that the Saviour will minister graciously to his people and the bruised reed will not be broken, the smouldering wick not extinguished. The Lord cares for his people body and soul, for the whole person. Whatever the cause of bruising or smouldering, the Lord is concerned and is able to deal graciously with the need. No struggle we experience is met with indifference.
Remember that the one described in Isaiah 42 shares our human nature, with the sole exception of sin. He ‘had to be made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:17). He ‘was tempted in every way just as we are’ and so is not ‘unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). The saviour can sympathise in ways that no-one else can. He was bruised and he smouldered to a degree beyond what we will ever experience.
Sympathy, however, is not enough. Christ does not leave his people bruise or smouldering: he restores and heals. Our struggles come because we live in a fallen world (though our struggles are often not the result of specific personal sin – the mistake of Job’s friends). The saviour has dealt with the root cause in his atoning death in the place of his people (2 Corinthians 5:21) and as a result those in Christ are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The work of the saviour cannot fail – that is the significance of ‘until he brings justice to victory’. Evil will not have the last word. All causes of bruising and smouldering will ultimately be removed in the new creation after his return. In the meantime he preserves his beloved people, assuring them that ‘no-one can snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:28). He may well not remove from us some of the things that bruise and cause smouldering (such as the experience of death), but he will give all the grace necessary for us to pass through trails and hard experiences and finally reach glory. By his grace bruised reeds are straightened and smouldering wicks burn brightly.
A pattern for Christ’s church. Reed breakers and wick snuffers need not apply.