Provoking discussion, that is.
Last April I wrote about a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz that depicts Jesus as a homeless man on a street bench.
Well, another cast of it has been purchased by and installed outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina—and again it is meeting with varied reactions from neighbors. CNN interviewed one woman who finds it inappropriate and theologically indefensible: “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 quote saddens me, not only because it demonstrates a self-centered attitude, one that is more concerned with getting one’s own needs met than meeting the needs of others, but also because it fails to take into account the biblical parable of the sheep and the goats that inspired the artist to create this sculpture in the first place. When I heard the interview, what I heard was this: the church doesn’t need and doesn’t want needy people; it just wants Jesus. Now that is something that I find theologically indefensible, because when you follow Jesus, you get both, and you serve the one by serving the other. The Christian call is, in large part, to look out for and take care of the needy. Jesus told his disciples that giving shelter to a homeless individual is the same as giving shelter to him.
Also telling of this woman’s cheap brand of Christianity is that on first seeing the sculpture, she called the police because she was concerned about the safety . . . of the neighborhood! (Not of the hungry person on the bench, sleeping outside, unguarded, in twenty-something-degree temperatures.) This is just one of many unfair stereotypes given to homeless people: that they are a danger to society; that they are violent, thieving drunks.
Thankfully, the gospel helps us break through such stereotypes.
CNN also interviewed the rector of St. Alban’s, David Buck, who acknowledges the challenging nature of the Homeless Jesus sculpture but sees its message as positive and necessary. Buck said that church members sometimes use the sculpture as an aid in prayer. (The bench has an empty spot beside the feet of Christ for pray-ers to sit.)