"A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench."
Have you ever strolled through a field of wheat straw and noticed the stalks that were bent as you walked through them? Not completely broken, they became what we call, "bruised". Now, have you ever tried to fix one of those bruised reeds? Impossible! In attempting to help it stand erect again, regardless of how careful we are, we will only damage it further. Our most delicate touch will be too hard, too much of a burden for the reed's bruised stem to bear, and inadvertent as it may be, any effort we make to help the bruised reed will only hasten its inevitable collapse.
Have you ever made a fire of flax-like straw, and watched it burst quickly into yellow and red life - then, almost as quickly fade to white, smoking ashes? Those thin streams of smoke, I learned as a boy, meant that the straw was beyond hope of rekindling. Glowing embers of a wood fire can be brought back to flames, but any attempt to blow smoking flax back to life will only scatter the lightweight ashes. All human efforts to rekindle smoking flax hasten its end.
Some people are like bruised reeds and smoking flax. They've been run over by life, or have burned out on its pleasures, and though not altogether gone, they are deeply and irreparably bruised in spirit. They are often discouraged and bitter, and sometimes they try to hide their pain behind a facade of self-confidence and aggression.
Some people have experienced the truth of Solomon's words: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill" (Eccl. 9:11). They see others given honors and gifts, and they know that had just a few things gone differently, they could have had the successful business, or the happy home; they could have been the great athlete or revered doctor or teacher. These are the ones whose dreams were shattered, who lost a darling child, or who are afflicted with a debilitating disease. These are those who labor extra hours to overcome debt but suddenly are crushed with yet another financial disaster. These are the discouraged, the downtrodden, and the "ne'er-do-wells" among men. These are the bruised reeds and the smoking flax of humanity, not yet completely broken, not yet cold, but helplessly on the way there.
There is a depth of despair so great that any human effort to help merely chases the pain deeper into the secret chambers of the heart; there is a grief that seems to swallow up hope. Especially is this true when a sacred trust is violated, as when a minister takes advantage of a distraught, trusting woman, or when a spouse is unfaithful, or when someone betrays the confidence of a friend. It is to these that Jesus was sent, the ones who have failed in life or have been humiliated, the forsaken, the misunderstood, the ostracized, those who squandered their youth in foolishness and now are growing old. It is to these bruised people, to the ones being pressed ever farther down by the weight of a cold world, that Jesus was most of all sent.
In Jesus' first sermon in his hometown, he quoted Isaiah and said that Isaiah's words applied to himself: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken in heart, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised" (Lk. 4:18). Notice that the first element of the gospel God sent Jesus to preach was that he should "heal the broken in heart". The deep compassion of the Father for the downtrodden is reflected in these brilliant lines from an old hymn:
feelings lie buried that grace can restore.
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
chords that are broken will vibrate once more.
When we have failed, when we have disgraced ourselves and those we love, when no one will be our friend, it seems that we can never hold up our heads again. But God, who "rescues the perishing", is able to rekindle our desire to live. He is able to restore joy to a ruined life. King David called God "the restorer of my soul" and the "lifter up of my head." Anyone who has disgraced himself as David did can understand how good it is to have God's loving, unseen hand lift up his head and restore the joy of living.
Only the anointing of God is able to touch our deepest hurt without making it worse. One prophecy of Christ described him this way: "The Lord has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary." How welcome are healing words to a hurting soul! Heavy burdens are lifted - indeed, lives can be salvaged - by words which spring from the holy love of God.
Jesus' anointing with his Father's Spirit (Acts 10:38) was more than for the healing of sick bodies. It was also an anointing of tenderness and wisdom. Speaking to his Father, Christ said through the prophet, "Your gentleness has made me great." Nobody but Jesus could have touched the wounded heart of the Samaritan woman who had suffered through five failed marriages. No one else could have comforted Zacchaeus, whose diminutive body matched the very low esteem in which he was held by his fellow Jews. And who but Jesus could have rescued Peter from the dungeon of condemnation after Peter cursed and swore that he did not even know the Lord?
Jesus also made my wasted life worth living. All that I have and all that I am is his gift of grace to me. He took me from the trash heap, after I had foolishly thrown my life away, and he gave me a wonderful home, a holy place to labor in his kingdom, and friends that are good for me because their first allegiance is to God. I can face life only because Jesus loved me and called me out of darkness into light. I praise him with all my heart for his mercy. He is truly "a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
Some may pride themselves for succeeding in this life, but Jesus came for the sake of those of us who fail. He was sent as a Friend to the friendless, a Mender of broken hearts, a Comforter of those who mourn, a Hero of the helpless, and a Bearer of burdens for those who are "heavily laden". Long before his birth in Bethlehem, we were told of his gentleness and grace, but in no terms was the depth of his lovingkindness better described than in these words from Isaiah: "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench."