Luke 23:33-43: A Rugged Cross, A Ragged King

When Jesus left Nazareth, where his parents lived, he “made his home in Capernaum by the sea” (Matt 4:13). When Chris and I stepped off the tour bus in Capernaum, I expected to see many familiar sites:

  • The Franciscan monastery where the monks who care for the ancient ruins of this town live.
  • The rocky seashore, where Jesus called his first disciples—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—to leave their fishing nets and follow him.
  • The monument to Peter, which depicts him holding the keys to the kingdom and a shepherd’s staff.
  • The 4th-Century Synagogue built on the ruins of the 1st-Century synagogue where Jesus taught and worshipped.
  • The modern Franciscan church built on top of the 5th-Century church build around the 4th-Century church, built around the 1st-Century house church, build around the house of Peter.

What I did not expect to see was Homeless Jesus, lying barefoot, wrapped in a blanket, on a park bench. He was not there the last time we were.

Homeless Jesus is a bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. According to an article on the Indiana arts site, nuvo.net, in 2011 the artist was[1]

walking in downtown Toronto. As the sculptor made [his way] through the city streets, he noticed someone perfectly still and shrouded in a blanket. “It was actually a shock to me to see in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of one of the busiest streets in this city, this human form,” says Schmalz. “It jolted me.”

The pause immediately brought a passage from Schmalz’s faith to mind — Matthew 25. A portion of the Bible where Jesus instructs his followers to treat “the least of these” as they would him. “It was almost a eureka moment, where I interpreted that sight as something deeply spiritual,” [he] says. “I was left believing that I just saw Jesus. And it was something that would not leave me.”

[Over the next year], he began sculpting and casting a human statue in his studio; one that could be placed on a bench and look like a homeless person lying still no matter the weather.

Since then, Homeless Jesus has been installed all over the world, not only in Capernaum, but also at the Vatican, and outside numerous churches, including St. Albans Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC. The sculpture

continuously causes a stir when it snows or rains. It’s not uncommon to see someone walk over and check to see if the figure needs help. . . . “The fascinating thing about the Gospel, [says Schmalz,] “is it unfolds like theater. . . . When one approaches the Homeless Jesus … it’s [not] till you get closer to the sculpture that [you notice wounds in] the center of the feet. . . . That’s where the sculpture becomes like theater.”

People react variously to Homeless Jesus: some call the police, some sit quietly beside him, hands laid on him in prayer, some walk away offended that this is not their idea of Jesus “a conquering king riding a cloud, robes flowing about his stately figure.”[2]

Which is exactly what makes this such a compelling sculpture. The truth is, Jesus never fulfilled human expectations of what a king should be. From his birth in a cave-stable, to his rebuke of Peter’s worldly understanding of Messiah, to his death on a cross between two criminals, Jesus has always defied our notions of King.

The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

And that is exactly what Jesus did . . . only not in any way that anyone can easily understand.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes the true meaning of the Reign of Christ:

though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The most important word in that hymn is “Therefore.” God highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name

  • not despite the fact that he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited
  • not even though he emptied himself
  • not overlooking that he took the form of a slave
  • not although he was born in human likeness
  • not in spite of the fact that he was found in human form
  • not disregarding that he humbled himself
  • not taking no notice that he became obedient to the point of death
  • not glossing over his death on a cross,

But . . .

  • because he was tempted in every way that we are
  • because he ate and drank with sinners
  • because he suffered pain and loneliness and humiliation
  • because he begged God to take the cup of suffering away from him
  • because he had no place to lay his head
  • because he identified with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned
  • because he lost his temper with the money changers
  • because he cursed the fig tree
  • because he was rude to the Syrophoenician woman and willing to learn from her
  • because he allowed the prostitute to anoint his feet
  • because he welcomed children onto this lap
  • because he touched people that others crossed the street to avoid

Therefore God highly exalted him and crowned him King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign forever and ever. Alleluia!

Next Sunday, we begin a new year of following the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and continuing life of Jesus. Next Sunday, Jesus calls us once again to follow him into the cave-stable, into exile in Egypt, into the cleansing waters of the Jordan, into the wilderness of temptation, into the pain, loneliness, and humiliation of suffering, homelessness, hunger, thirst, alienation, nakedness, illness, and imprisonment. Next Sunday, once again, we get to begin anew the year-long cycle of encountering the Homeless Jesus on every street sidewalk and in every place where anyone has ever suffered as he has . . . which is to say everywhere. Let us see and worship him for the ragged king that he is: a king who invites us to walk in his footsteps because he knows what it’s like to walk in ours, a king who lifts us up from our own ragged humanity. Amen.

[1] https://www.nuvo.net/arts/visual/sculptor-timothy-schmalz-on-the-story-behind-his-homeless-jesus/article_99e42781-43f4-5cf1-8e5d-df3bb10d1f42.html (Cited November 23, 2019).

[2] https://www.charlotteobserver.com/living/religion/article50874665.html (cited November 23, 2019).