Last week, I was walking down the streets of Atlanta and almost tripped over a homeless man living literally on the streets. It was not at all surprising that in the hustle and bustle of the movers and shakers of this international city he was overlooked but that I wondered for a moment in light of my almost breaking my neck "What if Jesus was homeless?"
Artist Timothy Schmalz created a sculpture that was recently praised by Pope Francis I which reminds us that Jesus identifies with the poor. The figure is shrouded by a blanket, looking remarkably similar to the homeless who lie on benches and grates across our continent. Only when you look carefully do you see that the man has gaping wounds in his feet.
It's Jesus the Homeless.
Two prominent churches in Toronto and New York City have rejected the sculpture, and it is now displayed outside a Jesuit school of theology in Toronto. "Homeless Jesus had no home," says the artist.
Although the Bible tells us that the real Jesus had "nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58), many of us don't want to accept his homelessness. Also there is more evidence that the suggestion that from Matthew 8:20 where a scribe declares his intent to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus responds by saying, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." The statement by Jesus is plainly a pithy saying intended to memorably make a bigger point about the cost of following Jesus and was probably intended to communicate to the scribe that he didn't really understand that to which he was committing himself. It may or may not mean that Jesus was literally homeless.
We cannot imagine the Messiah lying under a blanket on a park bench. We assume that God wants his followers to be healthy and wealthy. Some of us even blame the poor around us for not having enough faith.
If pushed, we might invite a homeless Jesus into our heart. But we would still have trouble inviting him into our home.
The Book of Hebrews tells us: "Suffer with them as though you were there yourself. Share the sorrow of those being mistreated, as though you feel their pain in your own bodies" (13:3 NLT).
Most of us share a Christian concern and compassion about homelessness. We wonder -- how do we help? What can we do? How do we show our Christian love in action?
Homelessness is not just a person living in the streets but almost every town has homeless people. Maybe they're sleeping on a cousin's couch. Or, maybe it's the working single mom with four kids camping in the basement of her best friend's home in the winter, and in a tent out back in the summer.
Funny thing about volunteering in a homeless shelter, or helping in a food pantry, or serving in a soup kitchen neighbor to neighbor -- God has arranged it so that the volunteers go away richer than when they came in the door. Not richer in money, but richer in spirit, faith and understanding. In God's economy, we have to give it away to gain it.
Did not Jesus exemplify this ideal when he matured and began to wait on the spiritually starving people of the world? He knew naturally the rules of communal homeless shelter life after he broke bread and shared wine with his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus knew very well that a customer is usually regarded as being greater than a waiter, but he turned these expectations on their head when he said to his disciples, "I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27)
One church minister was serving dinner at a shelter one evening while speaking with a "guest." The guest was a full -- time construction worker who couldn't save enough money for an apartment because it cost the security deposit, plus first and last month's rent, upfront. Most of his money he gave to his ex -- wife for their daughter.
Their conversation took place in the one -- room shelter for 45 men filled with rows of army cots, a blanket and a pillow on each. There were tables with benches, and a cheery group of church volunteers serving dinner. The construction worker asked this minister, "So, what are you doing tonight after serving?"
The minister replied, "I'm tired. I'm going home to bed."
The construction worker hesitated, and then asked quietly, "You have a bed?"
There's nothing like doing God's work to gain a proper, heavenly perspective. Writing a check to help is important work. But, serving with our own two hands is enlightening, enlivening and church building.
For Advent, such was the case for God, when he dwelt on earth. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. He identified with those who were poor and passing through. Even at his birth he was born in a manger, perhaps in a shed, perhaps outside, far from home.
I picture the scene of people everywhere, crowds, dusty roads, donkeys, rolled-up make-shift bags.
I imagine Mary close to tears from pain and the not-knowing, the dismay at looking at the dirty animal trough, the acceptance that this would have to be it, the hoping and praying that it would be okay, that the baby would be okay.
Was Jesus homeless? I don't know and will not assume that you have to be homeless to identify with the poor but the servanthood that Jesus displays is the key to Christmas joy that will allow a person like me to not overlook those who reside in the streets that we overlook. The little-known secret of Christmas is that our joy is full when we become servants ourselves. When we do, our joy will be full.