We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jesus as a Vagrant: Two Views

"Homeless Jesus" by Timothy P. Schmalz
The website for WCNC, Charlotte, North Carolina, recently carried a news post entitled, "'Homeless Jesus' sculpture sparks controversy," which reports on reactions to a sculpture entitled, "Homeless Jesus,"by Timothy P. Schmalz.  As seen at left, the statue is a lifelike representation of a homeless person sleeping on a bench.  Only the feet of the person are showing, and a close up of the feet shows the wounds of crucifixion on them.  The statue was recently placed in front of St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Davidson, NC, and has evoked two basic responses—positive and negative.  Two other churches were originally approached to display the statue, and they both declined the opportunity.

The rector at St. Albans and two church members, as reported in the posting, all feel that the statue represents an important aspect of who Jesus was.  The rector is quoted as saying, ""It's Jesus representing the most marginalized of society... We're reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness," Buck said, "Part of a faith commitment is to care or the needy."  A member of the community, however, is quoted as saying that the statue does not represent who Jesus really is. She said, ""I can't understand why anyone would want this," and argued according to the article that the statue is "an inappropriate message and wrong for the neighborhood." She would rather have a statue that shows Jesus "standing over the homeless protecting them." The article quotes her as saying in conclusion that "Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help... We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy."

This is a debate about Jesus that we have been having for two thousand years.  For some Christians, it was and is the power of Christ that is most important.  For others, it was and is his humility and his actual human weakness that is most significant.  The Christian tradition has insisted that he was both human and divine, but that still leaves us with the question of how we understand a human inhabited by divine power who was at the same time God embodied in human weakness.  In this case, however, I'm not sure we actually have to choose between the two.  Jesus can be for us both the one who is homeless and the one who is a patron for the homeless; he both sleeps on the bench and works through the Spirit to get others off of the benches where they must sleep.  He is weakness inhabited by power and power embodied in weakness.

And, personally, it would be quite a statement if "Homeless Jesus" was placed in the public triangle in front of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, NY.  Placed there, it would be a still more powerful image of the vagrant Christ to have him sleeping on a snow encrusted bench in the midst of our winter snowscape—cold, alone, and bedded in the snow.  Of such things are our visions of the Incarnation made.  Amen.