Reflecting on “Homeless Jesus”

Important Questions for Reformation Day

My central vocation at Valparaiso University is to teach and write about the Reformation and related subjects. As the Reformation’s quincentenary approached, I began searching for a way to convey the radically unconditional and cruciform love of Luther’s theology to our increasingly diverse campus. As I cast my mind and eyes about, I landed on what I think is an especially fitting symbol of this love for Valpo at this stage in its development: the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture, which is located on the lawn just west of the Harre Union. In this sculpture, the crucified Christ is wrapped in the cloak of a homeless man and rests alone on a bench. Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to consider this sculpture with the campus community in a number of venues, including Valpo’s Reformation Day event. I have suggested some important questions that “Homeless Jesus” raises for us as we try to take stock of the Reformation and what it might mean for us 500 years later. Here are some of these questions:

The crucified God inhabits the central crossroads of our campus; the Sovereign Lord has appeared, as Luther would put it, “under the contrary” (sub contrario). He has come to us. Have we noticed Him there?

Why has the crucified God come to us in this way? Might it be to draw our attention to the marginalized in our midst and the way we frequently pass them by? Luther taught that the experience of God’s radically unconditional love for us was supposed to motivate us to share this love with others. How are we doing at passing on such love, especially to those on the fringes of society?

Or perhaps the crucified God is among us to reveal to us with our own homelessness, our own alienation from our true home and source of love, which is God. Might “Homeless Jesus” be present among us to assure us that He has taken this homelessness on Himself as an expression of God’s deep love for us? Might He be there to tell us He understands our alienation, even from God? After all, it was He who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46), which Luther once dubbed “the greatest words in all of Scripture” (WATR 5: 188.19-189.3; Nr. 5493; Sept. 1542). Jesus gets alienation from God and He has provided a solution for it as sheer gift, for we are unable to overcome the alienation on our own.

Of what significance is it that “Homeless Jesus” is located at the crossroads of campus, common to all, belonging to all, yet owned by no one? He is not in the Chapel. He is a Jesus who belongs to all religions on campus. Might the location of “Homeless Jesus” be a sign for us of how the radical love of God comes to us and seeks us wherever we are, whoever we are, and in whatever dire situation we might find ourselves?

What is the relationship between “Homeless Jesus” and the glorious Christus Rex of the Chapel? Might we wish for the consideration of one to lead to a consideration of the other? Or must the two remain separate at Valpo? If so, why?

Finally, of what significance is it that there is space to sit next to “Homeless Jesus” on His bench? It seems that we have been invited to join Him on His bench and to sit next
to His crucified feet. How might it change the way we all understand and experience Valpo if we would each sit on this bench next to these feet and ponder these questions for a while?

My hope and prayer is that such an act might bring the radically unconditional and cruciform love of the Reformation to our campus in new ways. In Spring 2017, the Torch ran a series of published essays on “Homeless Jesus” written by Valpo students who have responded to my invitation to sit at the feet of the Crucified One. The sculpture of “Homeless Jesus” was made possible thanks to the generosity of Ron ’58 and Janet Reimer.

Ronald Rittgers Profile

Ronald K. Rittgers, Ph.D.

Erich Markel Chair in German
Reformation Studies
Professor of History and Theology