A Bruised Reed
He was a Catholic twelve-year-old living in Appalachia, where Catholics were few and Catholic influence was weak. Let’s call him Jimmy. Around 1890, when Jimmy was attending catechism class, the pastor caught him chewing gum. He scolded the boy and told him to get rid of the gum. Instead, Jimmy walked right out and never returned either to the class or to the church.
Jimmy’s two aunts tried their very best to persuade him to attend church again, but he was a stubborn kid, and the more they said yes, the more he said no.
Nevertheless, Jim still believed in the Catholic Church, and he said prayers every day. Came the Spanish-American War, and he signed up. One day, the ship he was on, a coaler, caught on fire. The fire was a bad one, and the young man knew that death was staring at the crew. That day he prayed very hard indeed, and the men aboard eventually got control of the fire.
Around 1940, the Glenmary Sisters started to take a census in the district where Jimmy lived, now an aged veteran, sick and incapacitated. Despite his sickness, he was ready to chat with the visitors, to own up that he was a fallen-away Catholic, and to tell the story of why he had left: the pastor and the chewing gum.
Sister Frances, the census-taker, saw a hope of reconciliation here. After a few more visits, she suggested that, since he was getting no younger, it might be good for Jim to see a priest.
The priest who came helped the old man to make his peace with God. Perhaps he succeeded because of his diplomacy. The pastor who scolded young Jimmy may have forgotten that people’s sensitivities have to be respected. Jesus took people where they were; he was frank but forebearing. Thus he fulfilled what the prophet had foretold of him.
“A bruised reed he shall not break and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” (Isaiah, 42, 3. Today’s first reading.)
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q510: If this prophecy in Isaiah was fulfilled, why does it still concern us?
Our First Reading (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7) has some very beautiful words about the action of God in choosing and calling his servant, and giving him a prophetic spirit and a universal mission of spiritual enlightenment for the world. The servant’s task is to mediate the revelation of God. The New Testament and the Early Church Fathers from the very beginning have seen this prophecy of Isaiah as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. After the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his mission and task has been passed on to his Church, the Body of Christ. Now each one of us is called to carry on this mission of justice.
Perhaps you never thought of this prophecy as now passing on to you? God’s “call” comes to us in many ways, and it is part of our heritage through baptism. Forever will I vividly remember the day, the hour, and the place when I first reflected deeply on this scripture passage. The Lord spoke to me through these verses on a Retreat, as I discerned my vocation to become an ordained deacon. I will always treasure the gift of those insights!
There is also a lot of practical wisdom in these verses. Followers of Jesus are not to “impose” their knowledge on others, but to speak God’s truth patiently and quietly. The goal is to help nurture interior reform or renewal in others. But first we must listen to God’s word ourselves – becoming obedient to its intended meaning, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. With that grounding of love, we are enabled to love others with God’s own patient love.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Jesus’ baptism “inaugurated” his mission as the servant that the prophet Isaiah spoke about (CCC #536). God made us in his image, and calls us through our own baptism to become forgiving love for others, just like he is forgiving and loving (CCC #218).