Matthew 9:35-38

A few weeks back, I ran a 20k race around Turquoise Lake in Leadville, Colorado. I ran the race with my dad who is training for the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile race that begin and ends in Leadville. I’ve been up to Leadville quite a few times over the years, and it’s quite a neat town for those who’ve never been—there’s quite a bit of history and some great human-interest stories such as Molly Brown, Baby Doe and Horace Tabor, and Doc Holliday. And, readily visible to anyone driving into Leadville are all the old mining operations that dot the landscape, all over it seems, and they have become as much a part of the dramatic mountain scenery as the mountains themselves. Much of what remains is amber hills of piled up mine waste, known as tailings, which are the leftover materials from the process of separating the valuable minerals from the ore. In and around Leadville, these tailings or leftovers, were piled up and left.

As the years passed, it became apparent that these tailings were not harmless piles of rock and dirt but were actually harming the nearby water and soil as water runoff drained the leftover heavy metals remaining into the nearby soil and water, leading to some pretty devastating environmental effects. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, the Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the area, eventually leading to the designation as Superfund clean-up site.[1] A big part of the clean-up efforts meant addressing these piles of mine tailings. With these tailings piles the source of so many environmental hazards, one would think residents would have been enthusiastic about seeing these piles disappear for good. True to most things in life, it wasn’t quite that simple.

To some long-time Leadville residents and state preservationists, the tailings piles are a valuable part of a distinct local history, a symbol of the great gold and silver booms of the past. Considered part of the scenery and intrinsic to the historical appeal of Leadville, many wanted to leave the tailings piles as is. So, in 1997, under pressure from media, as well as from citizens, preservationists and state representatives, incredulous EPA authorities agreed to leave several remaining tailings piles in place in the Leadville Mining District.[2] Perhaps it was because of my recent trip to Leadville a few weeks ago and my experience of seeing these tailings piles first hand—we ran over a little pile during the 20k—that these tailings came to mind as a read this story from Matthew this past week.  The story gives an overview of Jesus’ outreach efforts. He traveled across the country, speaking in cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues—their religious centers, and healing the people who were sick. We read that each time he saw the crowds of people, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Those words, “harassed and helpless” really stood out to me, so I dug a little deeper to learn a little more.

Harassed and helpless

To harass someone means to hassle, to bully, or to trouble. Sometimes we say we’re being “beat-up” by life. We don’t necessarily mean that we are being physically beat-up, just that with all the harassment, we feel abused. When we read the word helpless, we think of someone who is hurt and unable to help themselves—literally, they are without help. But in the Greek language in which this was originally written, the word had a deeper meaning; it implied someone who was thrown aside or cast away. Think if you will of the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember, there was a Jewish man who was attacked, robbed, beat-up, and left for dead. He was, in short, harassed and helpless. In other words, the helplessness doesn’t simply describe a handicap or impediment of the person—but more so describes the fact that a person has been hurt and impeded by another.

Imagine if you will, that you are up in Leadville for a weekend get-away this summer. Perhaps you’re biking on the mineral belt bike trail that circumferences the town. Traveling roughly 11 miles and at elevations of about 10,000 feet above sea level, you stop often to catch your breath and the enjoy the views. There are certainly some spectacular views to be seen around Leadville; Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, Turquoise Lake, and of course—the many piles of tailings around the town. If you’re like me, you’re quite intrigued by the piles as you notice the old wooden structures around them and wonder what the scene must have looked like one hundred years ago. Like the many other tourists and residents, perhaps you see these piles as a neat historical feature worth preserving. There are other ways to view these piles however. Some see them as environmental hazards, and think about massive environmental impact caused by the initial mining efforts and now by these leftovers.

When Jesus traveled around, seeing the crowds of people, he saw people who had been “used and abused,” people who have been bullied, beat-up, then cast aside by the ruling elite and their system of governance. As one commentator states, these aren’t just people who were wandering around looking for a leader, or people following the wrong religion or an errant philosophy of life. They were people who were being harassed and jerked about. That is to say, someone, some system, some way of life was oppressing them and then casting them aside.[3] These were people who were being treated like inanimate objects, like resources from which those in power extracted from them everything they could, then discarded them like a pile of tailings.

Sick to his stomach

Jesus saw this happening all over, in towns and in villages and it bothered him. And really, it did more than bother him, it made him sick to his stomach—or at least that’s the best way to describe it in modern terms. These days, when we talk about our emotions, we talk about our heart—like something touched our heart or broke our heart. In the time of Jesus, people talked about their emotions as residing in their guts. So, when it says that Jesus had compassion on them, it wasn’t as if he was saying, “oh, that’s too bad,” or “gosh those people seem to be having a tough time;” it might be more accurate to say Jesus had a visceral reaction to their suffering.[4] It affected Jesus to the point that he said to his disciples, “hey, we’ve got to do something, there are so many people who need help.” And, in chapter 10, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on a mission trip of sorts to the various communities in the region.

But here’s the thing, Jesus wasn’t simply sending out his disciples to go put band-aids on people, he was telling his disciples to proclaim a different way of living, God’s way of living, which challenged those who caused the suffering of others and brought hope to those who were suffering. Simply put, it’s not enough to clean-up piles of mine tailings—at some point we might want to ask why are we allowing to take place a process which creates such a toxic stew in environmentally sensitive areas in the first place. In the same way, Jesus was saying, “I’m not content just putting band-aids on people, I want to stop what’s hurting them in the first place.”

California Gulch years ago via https://coyotegulch.blog/category/superfund/standard-mine/

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, like some of the people of Leadville, we like piles of tailings, we like that there are people worse off than us. No, we wouldn’t admit that—but like the people of Leadville can look out onto piles of mine tailings and be reminded of their history, we can look out onto people struggling and be reminded of how we’ve done better in life than them—that we’ve been more successful, worked harder, whatever we like to tell ourselves. And like the town of Leadville will always have EPA clean-up going on so long as there are piles of tailings, we’ll always have people to help as long as there are people worse off than us. It feels good to help other people. And helping other people is good. But at some point, don’t we have to stop putting band aids on people and figure out what’s hurting them in the first place?

People, not objects

The thing is, we all have this tendency to treat people as objects from which we can extract resources to advance ourselves and our own agenda. And worse, we often set up structures and systems to streamline the process.[5] Jesus said, “enough!”  People are people; not objects to be used and abused, cast aside when they no longer have any value to the persons at the top. And this is the message Jesus told his disciples to share, the message of the Kingdom of God, good news, that God loves and values all people equally, and that God’s way of doing things does not allow for people to be used and cast aside like a pile of mine tailings—nor does God’s way of doing things allow for such a system to exist in the first place.  We’re all valuable to God—let’s live like that and treat others accordingly!

Jesus is sending us too!

In some Bibles, the heading over chapter 10 says, “the twelve Apostles.” Others say, “Jesus sends out the twelve,” or something similar. The meaning is basically the same, because the word “Apostle” literally means “sent out.” And just as Jesus sent out his 12 disciples, so too does Jesus send us out as disciples into our villages and communities, to look with compassion upon the people who are hurting and help them—yet we must not stop there—we must also ask, “Why are these people hurting? Who is hurting them? And what can we do to stop people from being hurt?” For in God’s kingdom, the good news that Jesus wanted to disciples to share with everyone, that God loves and values all people, there are no leftovers, no tailings, no unwanted remnants—and it’s our job as followers of Jesus spread that good news with all people.

 

[1] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.topics&id=0801478#Why

[2] Katie Redding, “EPA proposes new clean-up plan for Leadville,” TheColoradoIndependent <http://www.coloradoindependent.com/34677/epa-proposes-new-clean-up-plan-for-leadville> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[3] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[4] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[5] Wm. Paul Young and Brad Robinson, The Shack Study Guide (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2016), 66.

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