When I was a boy, my family ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners by candlelight. One year when I was about six, my uncle was helping clean the table after the Thanksgiving meal. He moved to put out the candles. He looked at me and motioned for me to stand next to him. He put his hand on the opposite side of the candle flame and blew. The candle went out, and there was a thin blue stream of smoke rising from the wick, which still had a glowing tip. “Watch this,” he said, and struck a match. He touched the match to the smoke about half an inch above the wick. The flame traveled down the smoke stream to the wick, which re-lit! I was amazed. Although I now understand the science of how this occurs, I still find it extremely interesting that something as insubstantial as the stream of smoke rising from a gently glowing wick can serve as conduit for the flame and re-ignite the nearly dead candle. This memory brings to mind Matthew’s quote from Isaiah, “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, …. He will not … quench a smouldering wick ….” (Matthew 12:18,20)

Regardless of what one believes about Jesus, one must admit that he was puzzling. As we read the gospels, we find story after story where people are amazed, inquire about his role, ask about his parentage, question his choice of company, or even wonder about his mental health. They were puzzled and they tried to make sense of this man. Jesus didn’t act as they expected, and this is true whether the ‘others’ were his followers, the religious leaders, the rulers, or his family.

I think the key to making sense of Jesus’ behavior is in the Isaiah passage which Matthew quotes. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, with God’s spirit upon him, would not quench a smoldering wick.

Jesus saw people as individual children of God. Most people, in Jesus time and now, think of people as belonging to certain groups – sinners, leaders, employees, homeless, politicians, blacks, whites, women, men – and the group membership frames our interaction with the person. Jesus, however, did not interact with people as members of a group who shared the characteristics of the group. Jesus met each person as a child of God. The person may be a sinner, tax collector, gentile, man, woman, whatever, but first and foremost, the person is a child of God. But more than this, Jesus recognized each person as a smoldering wick, that is, as someone who had a spark of God’s love glowing inside. If the person gave evidence of being open to God’s forgiveness, of being willing to receive God’s love more fully, then Jesus spoke words of healing and forgiveness which ignited the smoldering wick into a spiritual flame.

Jesus is confusing because he saw the spark inside people whom we would not expect to be open to the Spirit. And he saw that those whom we would think are spiritual, for example some of the religious leaders, were actually not open to God’s love but instead were operating under their own agenda. He interacted with people accordingly, and this often confused those around him. Jesus knew, and taught, that the greatest sinner may be more open to God’s love and forgiveness than a person who is in church every Sunday. Jesus gave us the example of accepting someone who recognizes their need for God, and of being a conduit for God’s love in their life.

It is easy to quench a smoldering reed, as it is easy to quell a glowing candle wick. It is easy to dismiss someone who isn’t a member of the right social or ethnic group. It is easy, and it is wrong. It is difficult to view people as individual children of God and to listen for words which hint of the person’s desire for God’s love and forgiveness. It is difficult to discern ways to ignite the smoldering wick into a glowing flame. It is sometimes hard to extend God’s forgiveness and to act in a way which displays God’s love. But Jesus gave us the example, and sent the Spirit to assist us. And Jesus has called us to continue his work. Paul said it very well in a letter to the church at Corinth: “… God … reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us ….” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). We also are the chosen, and God’s spirit is upon us. Let us reconcile the world to God, one person at a time, each one a smoldering wick igniting with the brilliant fire of God’s love.