There is a common notion around that Jesus was homeless during his time of public ministry. You don’t have to look far to find the idea. It shows up on t-shirts and has been promulgated by Shane Claiborne, among others. But is the suggestion that Jesus was homeless accurate? Is there evidence in scripture that might indicate otherwise?
The suggestion that Jesus was homeless is typically drawn from Matthew 8:20 where a scribe declares his intent to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus responds by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The statement by Jesus is plainly a pithy saying intended to memorably make a bigger point about the cost of following Jesus and was probably intended to communicate to the scribe that he didn’t really understand that to which he was committing himself. It may or may not mean that Jesus was literally homeless.
There are several passages in the gospels that suggest Jesus was not homeless. In Mark 2:1, when Jesus returned to Capernaum, it was reported that he was “in house” (Gk. en oikō). That the text doesn’t specify which house suggests that it was Jesus’ own house. The NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, and NLT all legitimately translate this verse with something along the lines of “it was reported that he was at home.” That means the scholars on the translation committees of five major translations with varying translation philosophies all agree that this was Jesus’ own home and not that of someone else. It was probably his own home.
Only a few verses later, we find Jesus sharing a meal with a tax collector named Levi. The meal is said to take place “in his house” (Gk. en tē oikia autou). But whose house is it? To answer this question we must find the antecedent of the possessive pronoun? In the immediately preceding verse, Jesus calls Levi to follow him. We then read that “having risen, he (Levi) follow him (Jesus).” Verse 15 then begins with another personal pronoun, “As he sat at dinner in his house…” The antecedent of all the pronouns in v. 15 would seem to be Jesus himself. The NIV, NRSV, and NLT translate this in various ways to say that Jesus is having a meal at Levi’s house, but this would mean taking the first pronoun to be Jesus and the second pronoun to be Levi. The ESV gives a fairly literal translation, “he reclined at the table in his house.” It seems unnatural to me to force these two pronouns to be referring to two different people. And the clearest and closest antecedent is “him” (Jesus) in v. 14. All that to say, the most natural reading of this text would put the meal in Jesus’ own house with Levi and the many other sinners and tax collectors who followed Jesus.
What are we to make of the relationship between these passages in Mark and the saying of Jesus in Matthew 8:20. It seems most likely to me that Jesus probably used his family home as something of a home base during his travels. When he was at home, he stayed there and hosted people there. When he was on the road, he likely stayed where he could find a place, perhaps with friends or supporters of the ministry. But there was no guarantee during those travels that he would have a place to lay his head. This doesn’t make Jesus homeless. It makes him a traveling preacher who found lodging where he could when away from home for a time.
Now let me be clear. That Jesus was probably not homeless in no way means that we should not minister to and with homeless people. We certainly must! The foundation for ministry with the homeless comes not from Jesus’ own alleged homelessness. It comes from his mandate to care for the least of these. Even if Jesus did have a home, he cared for the poor and the outcast. And if we are to be his followers, then so must we.