We regularly have rough sleepers camping out in the grounds of the Minster. Some are delightful, some a real nuisance. Some, we have been able to support in rebuilding their lives; others do not welcome any invitation or challenge to turn their lives around.
As we were reminded at a local symposium on homelessness this week, homelessness is more than houselessness. And there are complex dynamics at play, primarily the ways in which poverty of resources (lack of income), poverty of relationships (breakdown of family relationships, especially between youth and parents), and poverty of identity (at the root of addiction issues) create perfect storms.
On one occasion, Jesus responded to a man who expressed the desire to become his disciple, saying, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8:19-20).
These words are often taken to imply that Jesus was homeless, for at least part of his life. But a careful reading of the Gospels strongly indicates that he had a home in Capernaum. Having moved there after being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, it is possible that he stayed with some local fishermen, the extended family of Simon and Andrew, while making longer-term provision. Bear in mind that Jesus was, for most of his adult life, a house builder. In Mark’s Gospel, in particular, it seems likely that the house where a group of men dismantled the roof and lowered a paralysed man down on a bed roll, was Jesus’ own home, where he lived with his mother (her husband Joseph apparently deceased), sisters and brothers.
So, if Jesus wasn’t homeless, or at least not houseless, how might we understand his words concerning having nowhere to lay his head?’
‘Son of man’ is a phrase Jesus appropriates from some of the more apocalyptic prophets, such as Ezekiel and Daniel. It is a term that relates, at its most fundamental, to being a human being (indeed, the NRSVA—the translation of ‘official’ choice of the Church of England—translates ‘son of man’ as ‘human being’). Beyond that, and more specifically, it relates to a community who remain faithful to God in the exile that falls upon the people as consequence of their unfaithfulness, and who experience vindication and restoration.
In other words, when Jesus speaks of the Son of Man, he is not referring to himself as a unique individual, but to the community he is gathering around him, of which he is focal representative. This community, which the man is considering joining has nowhere to lay its head.
In Daniel chapter 7, Daniel has a disturbing ‘dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed,’ of, first, a series of wild animals and birds, and then of one like a son of man being brought to trial before God...and vindicated by God. The various beasts and birds represent a series of nations that surround and dominate Israel; and the court scene, the justification of a faithful remnant. This vision points to God first using the nations to judge his own people, and then using his restored people to judge the surrounding nations.
So, when Jesus says that foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he is pointing to a moment of crisis. The time of visions—of laying your head on a bed and dreaming dreams—is now over. The restored community is about to be vindicated, but not before trial. The kingdoms of the earth are presently comfortable, but that is about to change. If you want to follow me, it will be through this moment of crisis; through terror and judgement to vindication and great upheaval.
Jesus’ words are pertinent to rough sleeping not because we can say that Jesus knew what it is like to be homeless; but because the massive increase in rough sleeping in England since 2010 is apocalyptic, points to the injustice of the nation and, potentially, impending judgement; and the role in this of a faithful remnant who will be vindicated by God.
In other words, they are a call to be a prophetic community, in the midst of a time of undeniable upheaval we are experiencing as a nation.