Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20/Luke 9:58)
Popular perceptions of Jesus’ day to day experience are often informed by the above saying. The idea that Jesus was not only poor, but homeless, has become something of an axiom: Jesus knew the sorrows of destitution and therefore empathizes with the destitute.
Yet despite its appeal, I would argue that this concept does not hold up to scrutiny. Based on the texts available to us, Jesus was not homeless or even particularly poor. While Jesus certainly abandoned a life of financial security for one of financial strain (Mark 10:29-30, cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9), there is little evidence that he suffered from want of food or shelter.
The son of man has nowhere to lay his head
Taken in isolation though, the saying found in Matthew 8:20/Luke 9:58 does indeed suggest that Jesus usually had no place to lodge for the night. Like a fox without a hole or a bird without a nest, Jesus lived largely outside, often exposed to the elements.
The Gospel accounts, however, do not comply willingly to such a reading of the saying.
On the one hand is the meager positive evidence for Jesus’ homelessness: on only two occasions are we explicitly told Jesus spent the night outdoors. On neither occasion does he do so out of necessity. Rather, he does so once for prayer (Luke 6:12, cf. Mark 14:26-41) and once for sea travel (Mark 4: 6:45-52).
On the other hand is the abundant negative evidence: Jesus regularly dines and dwells in other’s homes.
- The house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum (Mark 1:29-31).
- Some homes in a Samaritan village (John 4:40).
- Someone’s house in Gennesaret (Mark 7:17).
- Someone’s house in Tyre (Mark 7:24-25).
- The home of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee (Luke 7:36).
- Various homes of clients (Mark 5:39, 9:28, Matthew 8:5-8).
- The home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42, John 11-12).
- The house of a leader of the Pharisees on the road to Jerusalem (Luke 14:1).
- The home of Zaccheus the tax collector in Jericho (Luke 19:1-10).
- The home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (Mark 14:3-9).
- The guestroom of an unnamed Jerusalemite during Passover (Mark 14:12-16, cf. John 13:1-4, 20:19).
Strangely enough, we even hear that Jesus was in “his house” (ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ) in Mark 2:15 (cf. Mark 9:33, John 1:38-39). Though many have identified this as Levi’s home, the text is ambiguous.
Once [Levi] arose, [Levi] followed after [Jesus]. And as he was reclining in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus… (Mark 2:14-15)
Coupled with Mark 2:1-2 where Jesus is said to be “at home” (εἰς οἶκον—referring to a building), a strong case can be made that this was in fact Jesus’ Capernaum property into which Levi followed Jesus. Capernaum was, after all, “Jesus’ town” (Matthew 9:1), the place where he “settled” (κατοικέω) (Matthew 4:13). Whether or not Jesus (or his family) personally owned this house, Jesus apparently used it as a base of operation for his extensive early ministry in the area. It was his in some sense.
When Jesus was away from home in Capernaum, however, it seems he and his friends relied on an extensive network of home-owning patrons. During his periodic trips to Jerusalem, for instance, after long days of preaching at the Temple he would stay with friends in Bethany on the Mount of Olives, friends like Lazarus and Simon the Leper (cf. Luke 19:2, 21:37).
When this network failed (cf. Matthew 10:14), Jesus was supported financially by many wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3, Mark 15:41, cf. John 12:6). On such occasions Jesus had the means to stay at an inn.
So while Jesus did not have a permanent dwelling (outside of Capernaum)—this due to the itinerant nature of his ministry (Mark 10:29-30)—he and his disciples were rarely without lodging or sustenance. They relied quite successfully on the kindness of those who were eager for the kingdom Jesus spoke of (cf. Luke 23:51).
In the end then, Matthew 8:20/Luke 9:58 more likely reflects Jesus’ unwillingness to stay in one place for very long than it reflects his inability to obtain adequate shelter. As the prophet of the impending kingdom, Jesus was resigned to a nomadic lifestyle (cf. Mark 1:38, Matthew 10:23).
Appendix: Born without a home?
The discussion surrounding the homelessness of Jesus often begins not with his adult life, but with his birth. The Jesus who was homeless during his ministry was allegedly homeless also as a newborn.
According to this traditional understanding, reflected in and perpetuated by our nativity scenes, Jesus was born in a stable, a structure that housed animals. When the local inn could not accommodate his parents, the holy couple retired to the equivalent of a pigsty, an enclosure for sheep, donkeys, and horses. While there Mary secured Jesus in the feeding trough. It was all that was available.
Despite originating in the Gospel texts, I would argue this familiar portrait relies on flawed interpretation. Let’s have a look.
- Matthew identifies no precise location for Jesus’ birth other than the town of Bethlehem. The Evangelist leaves us to assume that the birth took place in Joseph’s family home (οἰκία), the same one the magi enter some time later to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:11).
- Luke provides more specific information. In his Gospel a feeding trough (φάτνη) serves as the newborn’s crib because “there was no room in the inn” (κατάλυμα). In this context the κατάλυμα in question is probably the guest room(s) in Joseph’s family home (cf. Luke 22:11, 1 Samuel 9:22), not a πανδοχεῖον, i.e. a public house for the reception of strangers (cf. Luke 10:34). Many homes during this period housed livestock on the ground floor (cf. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 193-194). Had all the bedrooms and beds been filled with family members, Mary may very well have made a make-shift cradle out of a feeding trough. She would have done so inside the house, not in an animal pen.