January 19, 2012

Was Jesus Really Homeless?

There is a common notion around that Jesus was homeless during his time of public ministry. You don't have to look far to find the idea. It shows up on t-shirts and has been promulgated by Shane Claiborne, among others. But is the suggestion that Jesus was homeless accurate? Is there evidence in scripture that might indicate otherwise?

The suggestion that Jesus was homeless is typically drawn 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.

There are several passages in the gospels that suggest Jesus was not homeless. In Mark 2:1, when Jesus returned to Capernaum, it was reported that he was "in house" (Gk. en oikō). That the text doesn't specify which house suggests that it was Jesus' own house. The NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, and NLT all legitimately translate this verse with something along the lines of "it was reported that he was at home." That means the scholars on the translation committees of five major translations with varying translation philosophies all agree that this was Jesus' own home and not that of someone else. It was probably his own home.

Only a few verses later, we find Jesus sharing a meal with a tax collector named Levi. The meal is said to take place "in his house" (Gk. en tē oikia autou). But whose house is it? To answer this question we must find the antecedent of the possessive pronoun? In the immediately preceding verse, Jesus calls Levi to follow him. We then read that "having risen, he (Levi) follow him (Jesus)." Verse 15 then begins with another personal pronoun, "As he sat at dinner in his house..." The antecedent of all the pronouns in v. 15 would seem to be Jesus himself. The NIV, NRSV, and NLT translate this in various ways to say that Jesus is having a meal at Levi's house, but this would mean taking the first pronoun to be Jesus and the second pronoun to be Levi. The ESV gives a fairly literal translation, "he reclined at the table in his house." It seems unnatural to me to force these two pronouns to be referring to two different people. And the clearest and closest antecedent is "him" (Jesus) in v. 14. All that to say, the most natural reading of this text would put the meal in Jesus' own house with Levi and the many other sinners and tax collectors who followed Jesus.

What are we to make of the relationship between these passages in Mark and the saying of Jesus in Matthew 8:20. It seems most likely to me that Jesus probably used his family home as something of a home base during his travels. When he was at home, he stayed there and hosted people there. When he was on the road, he likely stayed where he could find a place, perhaps with friends or supporters of the ministry. But there was no guarantee during those travels that he would have a place to lay his head. This doesn't make Jesus homeless. It makes him a traveling preacher who found lodging where he could when away from home for a time.

Now let me be clear. That Jesus was probably not homeless in no way means that we should not minister to and with homeless people. We certainly must! The foundation for ministry with the homeless comes not from Jesus' own alleged homelessness. It comes from his mandate to care for the least of these. Even if Jesus did have a home, he cared for the poor and the outcast. And if we are to be his followers, then so must we.

3 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

Good post!

The sad thing is that you even have to address ideas such as this. Jesus need not be homeless for us be obliged to minister to the homeless.

This same logic would mean that Jesus would have to be a homosexual for us to minister to the those bound by sexual sin.

Knowing the character of Christ is all that is needed to be compelled to act in a Christ-like way (towards others).

We need not make 'Him' in our image, while we're being made into His.

David Pickett said...

Jesus led a wandering and somewhat ascetic life during His ministry. I expect that when not camping on the road and meditating out in the wild places, people would offer him lodging, and want Jesus to make Himself at home. And being perfect in so many ways, Jesus would know how to accept. But people did not hang out at Jesus' house awaiting his return, for if He had one, He was rarely there. Maybe He was the groom at the wedding in Cana, maybe He had a house in Cana, Nazareth or Capernaum, but if so, it obviously does not figure much in His ministry. It also does not change the meanings of Gospel passages in any significant way.

Jesus did reach out to the poor, and that certainly included many homeless, although that obvious aspect of deep poverty was not worth mentioning, and the mention would dilute and distract from the message.

Modern attitudes about the homeless seem amazingly nasty, attributing the worst with gratuitous ease to all. Homeless people may have a higher representation of alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, lgbt youth, the unemployed, foreclosed, ex-convicts. First, we cannot assume that of any. Second, that should not surprise, us, but they still represent the failure of our love, collectively and individually. They are the very persons Jesus reached out to, and we make up all sorts of excuses, devices and organizations to keep them at a distance from our hearts, make them not-our-problem. I cannot imagine how we explain that to Jesus.

cornell said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for this insightful posts. I was meditating upon the same thing when I came across your post. My comment may be coming too late, but I couldn't help but notice that you didn't mention the book of John in your post. It contains enough references and inferences to Jesus' home. I also figure that he used to live with his mother. E.g. He went to the wedding in Cana with his mother. He cleared the temple while accompanied by his mother and brothers. There's also the final request to John that he takes care of his mother (Mary).

Check out John 1:38-39, John 2:12, John 19:26-27.