Jesus, Justice and Bruised Reeds

God’s justice is characterized by His preference for mercy.

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:18-21 ESV)

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4) that Jesus fulfilled according to the Gospel of Matthew. They are echoed in the baptism of Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke and said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)

Of particular note to me is the statement that Jesus came “to proclaim justice to the Gentiles”, and he will “bring justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope!” For the past two years, I have read through the Bible from start to finish focusing on the theme of justice (among other things).

The theme of justice is everywhere in scripture when you look for it! Justice is particularly embedded in the messianic prophecies and promises. The coming, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus is all about righteousness and justice.

I believe that modern Americans have a warped view of what justice means, biblically. We tend to view justice as retributive and punitive. Justice in a popular sense tends to mean people getting their just desserts, but that isn’t what we see in Scripture.

The prophets warned God’s people about two main things: idolatry and failing to do justice. Obeying God’s commands fit more or less into these two broad categories of worshiping God alone and doing right by people.

These are the two great categories of the ten commandments. Thus, the law is summed up this way: love God and love your neighbor.

When God executed judgment on His people in the OT in keeping with the warnings spoken by the prophets, He always did so in hope that His people would turn from their wicked ways. Judgement as a subset of justice was redemptive. It’s aim was to guide people back to right relationship with God and to each other.

Overarching God’s justice is His preference for mercy, because His ultimate desire is for relationship with us. He desires also that we would have healthy relationships with each other (love your neighbor) in the same way. A right relationship with God and with our other human beings (and the world we live in) is the essence of what it means to be righteous and just.

God’s law was not imposed for its own sake, but to point God’s people toward love for God and love for neighbor. Thus, when the Pharisees focused on the letter of the law, without embracing the spirit of the law, Jesus corrected them:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23 ESV)

The letter, alone, kills, but the spirit of the law gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6) These words echo the words of Jesus when he said:

“The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63)

Those words were summarized this way by Jesus when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the temple in Capernaum when he announced his ministry  (Luke 4:18-19 (reading from Isaiah 58:6; 61:1-2):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Thus, the words Jesus spoke that are spirit and life are the words that carry the proclamation of

  1. “good news to the poor”;
  2. “liberty to the captives”;
  3. “recovering of sight to the blind”;
  4. “[setting’ at liberty those who are oppressed”; and
  5. “the year of the Lord’s favor”.

This was not just for the Jews, God’s chosen people, but for the Gentiles. Matthew calls it “justice for the Gentiles”. Thus, justice is not retributive or merely punitive, but redemptive and restorative. God’s justice is characterized by His preference for mercy.

That redemptive and restorative purpose of God’s justice that is embedded in the messianic promises that were fulfilled by Jesus are described this way by Paul:

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,  and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”  (Ephesians 2:11-18 ESV)

Jesus brings those who were far off near by his blood. He himself is our peace, breaking down the walls that divide us by the sacrifice of his own flesh. His purpose is ultimately to reconcile us to himself and to each other through the cross.

And now, I want to focus finally on the phrase that prompts my writing today:

a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench

This was the way Jesus approached the lost sheep, both Jew and Gentile – both God’s people who were blinded to the spirit of the law in their rigid adherence to the letter of the law and those people who didn’t know either the letter or the spirit of the law. I love the commentary by Matthew Henry on this passage:

“Let us with cheerful confidence commit our souls to so kind and faithful a Friend. Far from breaking, he will strengthen the bruised reed; far from quenching the smoking flax, or wick nearly out, he will rather blow it up into a flame.”

This portion if his commentary relates to our vertical relationship to God. the next portion of commentary relates to our horizonal relationship to people, both fellow believers and people who don’t know God at all:

“Let us lay aside contentious and angry debates; let us receive one another as Christ receives us. And while encouraged by the gracious kindness of our Lord, we should pray that his Spirit may rest upon us, and make us able to copy his example.”

I think about this tender attitude of Christ for us – being careful not to break a bruised reed or to quench a smoldering wick – when I think about how we should relate to people around us. As tempting it may be to write people off and shrug them aside to the dark webs of their own deceits, we must not be so callous, as God is, thankfully, not so callous with us.

In that context, I am reminded also of these words from the prophet, Micah (6:8)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.


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