This post was originally written a few years ago, but I’ve updated it for World Homeless Day 2022.
Jesus lies on a park bench, covered by an inadequate blanket. You might just ignore him, write him off as just another homelessness statistic, a junkie or a skiver or a veteran with PTSD who can’t handle civilian life. But take a closer look – his feet are scarred with nail marks. We know who this is.
Homeless Jesus is a sculpture by Timothy Schmaltz, copies of which are on display around the world, from Glasgow and Liverpool to the Vatican and Manilla, and responses to it always seem mixed; some find the statue to be beautiful and moving; others see it as a demeaning portrayal of Christ. Maybe that tension is a good thing, with art stirring questions around Christ’s solidarity with the homeless, because
There’s something about the statue that gets to the heart of the Incarnation. Jesus doesn’t appear as a spiritual entity untouched by the world around him – he’s down here in the dirt and grime. This is someone who went through hell and spent 18 years on building sites. We tend to forget that – we put him on a pedestal as a great moral teacher and a source of inspirational quotations. And if we’re used to him being up there on a plinth, then it’s disruptive to see him sleeping on a bench. Or is it? Maybe it just makes him easier to ignore; after all, it’s easy to do that with homeless people.
Sometimes, though, it’s worse than people just walking on by. In 2018, the Guardian published this story on the physical and verbal abuse received by rough sleepers. One man had his tent set on fire while he was in it. Others were sexually assaulted. Many were urinated on.
So a statue like this isn’t just disruptive to power structures and the authorities, because it’s not politicians who carry out the actual physical abuse of rough sleepers, it’s ordinary people, people like you and me, and while you might be outraged at that, ask yourself why it happens so often if it’s just some isolated thugs? We have to actively choose whose side we’re on.
Unfortunately for our comfort, Jesus makes that choice simple and stark. We divorce Jesus, and our faith, from the marginalised, or move him from the fringes, at our peril. This is a man who, were he here today in the flesh, would spend more than a few nights sleeping in the doorway of an off licence or contending with security guards and defensive architecture. That’s the sort of person he is. That’s why he had such a following among lepers and prostitutes, the beaten and the broken. He recognised the image of God in each person he encountered, and we need the grace and humility to do the same. I hate the thought of my kids growing up in a world where abuse of the homeless is a recreational activity, but if I want them to be able to envision a better future, I need to pledge myself to recognise the humanity of all those around me, and Jesus reflected in their eyes.
We want to honour Jesus as Lord and Saviour, sure, but he’s the Servant King, and so it doesn’t feel appropriate to put him next to luminaries such as Churchill and Nelson. Homeless Jesus has the power to be prophetic, to speak truth to power, to remind us that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. And yes, homelessness is a terrible, growing problem, but there are things we can do, things we can support. In my city, the churches operate a night shelter over the winter months. Thanks to that, no-one died sleeping on the streets last year. Does it fix the problem of rough sleeping? No, but those individuals who survived the winter are testament to how we can make a difference.
We don’t need a stained glass Jesus, and rough sleepers don’t need that ersatz piety when someone’s urinating over them. We need the disruptive Jesus, Jesus of the margins, Jesus of the nail scars, Jesus of the benches and the doorways.
We need a homeless Jesus.