During a conversation about needs in the community back in North Carolina, one person commented, “We don’t need any more Republicans or Democrats. We don’t even need any more Libertarians. What we need are Communitarians.” He didn’t mean that we need more communists. He was talking about the need to have people who thought outside of themselves and outside of the box, as the expression goes.
I would add that one of the reasons we don’t need any more Republicans or Democrats or members of Forza Italia or Partito Democratico, for that matter, is because, as well intentioned as all sides may be, they function within the current paradigms. When a problem arises, both sides respond by creating a new program. I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. long enough to see, first hand, that the reason we can’t seem to get the policy we need when we set out to create it, is because the people writing the policy are all instruments of the status quo. They live in a bubble that is Washington, D.C. and though I believe they truly want to make a difference, so often they don’t.
When Jesus asks the disciples where they are to buy bread to feed all the people who’ve gathered, Philip answers from the inside of the disciples’ little bubble of a world, faced with certain limitations. I imagine that Philip did genuinely want to help these people. Yet he doesn’t get so far as even a new policy on feeding the hungry. He looks at the coffers and tosses up his hands in defeat. Philip responds with the same doubt and incredulity we all know so well. He says, in effect, “There is no way we could scrounge up enough money to even begin to feed these people.”
Andrew comes at it from a different angle. Like Philip, he recognizes that there is a need. But instead of going the traditional route as did Philip, he breaks free of their bubble of helplessness, if only for a moment. He seems to recognize that they aren’t completely helpless — there is something available to them. There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish. But then, realizing how ridiculous this fact is in the light of how many people need to be fed, he dismisses his own comment. Instead of allowing himself to continue down this road of what is possible, he self-consciously slips back into the bubble of realities that tell him that there is nothing they can do for these 5,000 hungry people.
Seeing their inability to see a way forward, Jesus takes what is available, what is known — the loaves and the fish — and he breaks open the bubble of the disciples’ helplessness. Suddenly, because he has a desire to feed these people, there’s a way to feed them. Whether you believe that the miracle of the story is that Jesus created a plenty out of modest rations or whether Jesus was able to so move the hearts of the people that they were willing to share what they did have with one another — the point is the same. Jesus showed the disciples, and the 5,000, and us today, that what’s required to help usher in the kingdom of God is an approach that seems both miraculous and natural at the same time.
We take stock of the needs of the world and the resources at our disposal. Then we work, bit by bit, individual need by individual need, to eliminate suffering and want. All the while we trust in the Spirit to take our meager efforts and make them into the truly transformative work we desire for them to be.
Yet despite Jesus’ life of paradigm shattering teachings and miracles, we continue to live our lives in our own little bubbles and according to the conventions that we’ve all come to take for granted. For the most part, I don’t think that we live in bubbles out of fear or to escape. For most of us, our bubbles are a symptom of our work or family life or lack thereof. All of our experiences lead us to believe that there are just some lines that we cannot cross. There are some limits that will not be overcome.
Yet the gospel begs to differ. The gospel moves us beyond limits: dark to light, from sin to forgiveness, from death to life. The gospel calls us to make ourselves aware of the world and its needs.
In his book, More or Less, author Jeff Shinabarger writes,
“Need is everywhere, yet we too often fail to see it. If we don’t see it, we won’t be bothered by it.” (161)
Having recognized the needs around us, the gospel calls us out of our bubbles and into the kingdom, in which anything is possible.
The world needs people who are willing to be caught up short by the needs they see around them, but who don’t let that initial impossibility phase them. They’re the ones who offer the ridiculous ideas in the face of reality. The kingdom needs people to live outside of themselves.
“If you build a life that is separate from people who experience great need, you will always struggle to be a generous person. In large part, the people closest to us determine what we desire. So surround yourself with people living in excess, and your desires will become even more excessive.” (249)
The inverse is also true: surround yourself with people living in want, and your desires will be tempered by others’ needs.
Shinabarger writes that, “Generous people live in community with people who benefit from their generosity . . .” (249
Kingdom people are always on the lookout for ways to correct the world when it goes astray from God’s dream of a world in which all have enough and all will be well.
When we’re willing to seem ridiculous and ludicrous, that’s when we will find that God is doing something new. To do something new, God uses our willingness to rely on him instead of the conventions and expectations of this world. With that something new, the kingdom breaks in a little bit more.
Might we be ridiculous for Jesus – living on the edge, always bursting our own bubbles, and rejoicing in our God for whom all things are possible.