THE PICTURE IS A LOVELY ONE, Jesus is so tender and gentle that when he finds a “bruised reed” (Matt. 12:20), instead of snapping it off thoughtlessly, he binds it up in the hope that it will rejuvenate itself. If the wick of a candle has been reduced to a smoldering ember, instead of snuffing it out — thereby extinguishing it completely — Jesus fans it back into flame. He will act this way, we are told, “till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope” (12:20-21).
The words are drawn from Isaiah 42:1-4, one of the “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah. Many people expected a Messiah who would come with decisive and irresistible power and bring justice to the earth, or at least to Israel. But it appears unlikely that many people linked the coming King with Isaiah’s promised servant. That is why the notion of a kingdom that dawned in the context of meekness and blessing, and restrained in the matter of climactic judgment, was so unexpected. Yet here was Jesus, healing the sick among the people — and then warning them not to tell people who he was (12:15-16). Small wonder Matthew sees in such conduct a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s lovely words.
Even the surrounding verses betray something of the same theme. While Jesus is healing someone on the Sabbath, his opponents try to kill him for ostensibly breaking the Sabbath (12:9-14); while Jesus casts out demons from a poor victim, his opponents are ready to write Jesus off as the devil himself (12:22-28). Their very harshness, in the name of an alleged orthodoxy, contrasts sharply with his gentleness.
In addition to the great christological implications, this passage discloses something of the nature of the kingdom into which Christians have been drawn, and therefore of the conduct that is demanded of us. On the one hand, as Matthew has made clear in the previous chapter, Jesus’ witnesses are called to a holy and courageous boldness, a firm fidelity to the Gospel that is willing to endure ostracism and even persecution. But we are not to display the kind of “strength” that is hard and harsh, the kind of uprightness that is angry and condescending, the kind of courage that is merely ruthless, the kind of witness that rants and manipulates. We follow the Lord Jesus, who tells his followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). That means that we too, while we proclaim “justice to the nations” (12:18), resolve not to quarrel or cry out, clanging cymbals in the streets.