In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that whenever they feed or clothe or do any kindness to those in need, they are really feeding and clothing and doing that kindness to him. Inspired by this passage, Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz got to working on a life-size bronze sculpture that depicts Jesus lying on a bench, covered with a blanket, identifiable only by the nail prints in his feet.
Schmalz experienced a double setback last summer when two prominent churches—St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York—that had initially expressed interest in the work ultimately decided not to pursue it. Schmalz attributes their backing out in part to their fear that the sculpture may be too controversial or vague. St. Patrick’s has said that on the contrary they think the sculpture is lovely but that extensive renovations prevent them from installing the piece at this time.
But at last, there is a taker. Last week Regis College at the University of Toronto, a Jesuit school of theology, bought (the first cast of) the sculpture, and it is now a permanent fixture on the campus.
Schmalz sees his role as a Christian artist as that of a translator (of gospel truths into image form) and a preacher, so he’s glad that this visual sermon of his now has an audience. “If you have a great location for your sculpture, it’s like preaching to a large audience. If you have a bad location, it’s like preaching in a closet,” he said.
He hopes that Homeless Jesus will elicit double takes from passersby, as they realize first that “wait, that’s not a real person, it’s a sculpture,” and then “oh, it’s Jesus!” His aim is twofold: to encourage Christians to see Christ in their homeless neighbors and to act accordingly, and to comfort those who are homeless by showing that Christ identifies with them in their suffering.
In the video below, Schmalz explains some of the choices he made during the creation process, such as his decision to obscure Christ’s face.
This is not the only sculpture Schmalz has done on the subject. Here are two more of his works inspired by Matthew 25:
I really like these nontraditional depictions of Christ. Oftentimes Christians are very dismissive of or even disparaging toward homeless people (toward the incarcerated, even more so). I’ve heard so many Christians make blanket assumptions about the homeless—“they don’t want to work,” “they must be addicts”—and treat them with cynicism—“if I give them money, they’ll just spend it on drugs or booze.” But I can testify that having personally met and befriended several in the homeless community of Cambridge, Massachusetts, each person’s story is different, and no matter what landed them on the streets—whether circumstances beyond their control (mental illness, disability, divorce, job loss, etc.), foolish life choices, or some combination of the two—every one is deserving of love and dignity.
I thank God for showing me more of himself through my conversations and encounters with the folks who live on the streets of Cambridge. Just hearing about their struggles, their dreams, their prayer requests, their interests—and sharing mine with them—has given me a deeper recognition of their divine image-bearing humanity.
How might it change the way you respond to a sidewalk call for “spare change” if underneath that coat hood, you saw the face of Christ? If in the hand that holds the money cup, you saw a gaping puncture wound?
This is what Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus sculpture asks. His charge to viewers is to go out and see Christ in others. And to be Christ to others. When we ignore the homeless, we ignore Christ.