Bible reading must prepare our congregations for their own radical change. Churches in the Global South are called to explore new themes that speak to the realities of their congregations.
Like elsewhere, Housing is one of the defining economic issues for Indian Christians, a majority of whom belong to the Economically Poorer Section (EPS) and Low Income Group (LIG). Housing affects safety, health, financial stability, and social outcomes. And yet, there is very little or no theological reflection on Housing.
The lack of reflection on contextual themes exposes our ignorance of the real needs of real people in real places. Biblical reflections must serve contextual needs. The question of housing is more urgent than ever. I begin my theological exploration by asking, Did Jesus own a house?
The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head
The most common belief about Jesus (to use Fanny Crosby’s words) is that he was “ homeless, rejected and poor” (cf. Tell me the Story of Jesus).
The popular image of Jesus as homeless is based on a few passages in the Gospels. Jesus’ words “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20) is taken to describe the kind of life Jesus lived.
Moreover, Jesus was an itinerant preacher and he travelled across many cities, towns and villages. And therefore, Jesus was ‘homeless’. At best, Jesus was a guest in the homes of many of his disciples.
The need to reshape our mental maps
The Gospels do not explicitly mention that Jesus was homeless. Many passages in the Gospels allude to a residence (cf. Matt. 9:28; 13:1, 36; Mark 2:1; 7:17; 9:28, 33; 10:10). In this article, I intend to engage with passages that deal with Bethlehem, Nazareth and Capernaum.
I prefer to stay at the surface level of the Gospel texts and engage in the plain reading of these texts. I am happy to arrive at simple truths that will be meaningful to the real needs of real people in real-time.
This reflection on Jesus’ home is intended to provide a subversive subtext for reshaping our mental maps.
(Re) reading the Gospels
I find the biblical references to Jesus’ home, house, and residence (katokasen) completely fascinating and insightful. Sadly, we have missed these details because of our theological preoccupation with other devotional themes
The house in Bethlehem
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents lived in the town of Nazareth in Galilee (Lk. 2:4). Joseph belonged to the house and line of David (Lk 2:4) and therefore, Joseph had to travel with Mary to Bethlehem for the Census decreed by Rome.
While they were in Bethlehem (Lk 1:6), Mary gave birth to Jesus. Initially, Joseph and Mary had to stay in a stable (of a distant relative?) as there was no room for them in the inn (Ps 2:7).
Additionally, Matthew’s Gospel narrates the visit of the Magi from the East (West Asia/Africa) long after Jesus was born (Mt 2:1). The Magi came following the Star and found the place where the child was (Mt. 2:9).
The Magi with exceeding joy entered the house (Mt. 2:11a) and worshipped the (two year old?) child (Mt 2:11b). Herod’s order to kill all boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old (Mt 2:16a) was in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Mt 2:16b).
It appears that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem for a little less than two years and perhaps even owned (?) a house there.
A family house in Nazareth
Matthew and Luke record the family’s return to Nazareth. While Luke narrates the return to Nazareth immediately after the Jerusalem temple visit (Lk 2:39), Matthew records the return to Nazareth after their flight to Egypt (Mt. 2: 14-15; 19 – 23) fearing political violence and a brief stay there until the death of Herod (Mt. 2:15).
Joseph, probably, wanted to return to Bethlehem(?) or thereabouts in Judea (Mt. 2;21). However, the family was afraid to go there since Archelaus was reigning over Judea in the place of his father Herod (Mt. 2:22) Instead, they withdrew to the district of Galilee and chose to live in a city(?) called Nazareth (Mt. 2: 21 – 22) for “it was their own town” (Lk. 2:39).
Nazareth was Mary’s town (cf. Lk 1:26) and her family probably owned a house in Nazareth. Besides, Joseph also had a home in Nazareth. Matthew records that he took Mary home (Mt 2:24) and attended to her until she gave birth to a son (cf. Mt. 2:25).
Joseph and Mary could easily settle down in Nazareth and rebuild their lives ( perhaps with the help of the expensive gifts given by the Magi). Besides, Joseph, being a skilled artisan (gk. techne), could have easily found work or established a business. His trade would have flourished given Nazareth’s proximity to Sepphoris, Herod’s dream City.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth and lived there for thirty years. His (large) family could have owned a house or at least had a family home in Nazareth.
Jesus in Capernaum
Jesus grew up in Nazareth and therefore, it is no surprise that he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth (as many as 17 times in the Gospel of John). However, Matthew calls Capernaum the city of Jesus (Mt 9:1).
It appears that Jesus left (?) Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. The rejection in Nazareth (Lk 4:16,29) could be the main reason for Jesus’s move. The city played a significant role in Jesus’ life and ministry.
Capernaum was a prosperous city as it enjoyed the proximity to the main trade route between Egypt and Damascus. The city was strategically located and Jesus’ public ministry was based out of this fishing town.
A guest at Matthew’s house?
Capernaum was Matthew’s hometown. We read of Jesus’s dinner at Levi’s house with a large gathering of Tax Collectors, Disciples and followers. Matthew, a tax collector, could afford a large house to host Jesus and his disciples every time there were in town. Perhaps, this frequent check-in at Matthew’s house was the reason for criticism of unholy “eating with Tax collectors and sinners”.
Peter’s home in Capernaum
Jesus visited Peter’s home in Capernaum (Mk 1:29) and famously healed his mother-in-law. The gathering of the whole town at the door and Jesus healing many who had various diseases (Mk 1:33). Peter’s mother-in-law served Jesus ( Mk 1:31) and this seems to suggest that Jesus was a guest at Peter’s home.
Additionally, we read of Jesus leaving the house very early in the morning (Mk 1:35) and Peter and his companions go out “ to look for him”(Mk 1:36). Jesus may have stayed in Peter’s home and enjoyed Peter’s hospitality many times over.
Jesus’ own residence
While it is likely that Jesus stayed in Peter’s or Matthew’s house, it could be that Jesus owned a house in Capernaum. Interestingly, Mk 2:1 alludes to Jesus owning a house in the town. The large gathering with no room left, not even outside the door after he had come home (Mk 2:1) indicates Jesus’ popularity and more importantly, prior knowledge of Jesus’ house.
Here is a rare mention of Jesus preaching the word in a private setting (rather than in a religious or public-setting). The courage with which the four men brought the paralytic and lowered the mat by ‘opening in the roof and digging through it”(Mk 2:4) is indicative of familiarity with Jesus and the house. Interestingly, there is no mention of a host despite the damage caused. It appears that this house was indeed Jesus’ home.
Much before Jesus’ introduction to either Peter or Matthew, Jesus had invited Andrew ( and his friend) to come and stay with him (Jn 1:39). Andrew wanted to know where Jesus was staying (Jn 1:38) and they followed (Jn 1:37). Andrew and his friend saw Jesus’ residence and spent the day with him (Jn 1:39c)
‘House on Earth as in Heaven’
Austerity has always enjoyed spiritual approval and respectability, particularly among poorer congregations in India. The flight from materialism has given rise to a brand of ‘other-worldliness’, which is now established as a subculture within Indian Christianity.
Housing aspirations are considered to be an “otherworldly” concern. Therefore, affections (if any) are discouraged (if not denounced). Real-life aspirations are overly spiritualized, only to be actualized as “mansions in heaven” in the afterlife.
Frugal lifestyle, worldly detachment, and generosity beyond their means characterise many Indian-Christian faith communities. Such idealized notions of an imagined spirituality make poor Christian communities vulnerable to a loss of enterprise.
Our biblical reflection must go beyond providing shreds of comfort and/or bouts of devotional exuberance. Unfortunately, the old narrative has not faded away in many congregations. We need to move beyond the culturally familiar.
Housing concerns are real. It is easy, but wrong to overlook this. Affordable housing is the need of the hour to ensure safety, health, and prosperity.
Housing concerns require our immediate attention and theological reflection. What I have attempted is to glean Jesus’ ownership of a house from Gospel texts. We need to plod further and look at housing as a ‘category’ in the Bible.
This reflection, hopefully, has shone a light on aspects of the texts that largely go unnoticed. What this reflection points to is that housing concerns are real and not ‘wordly’. Jesus (and some disciples) had a residence in Capernaum.
Housing is key to ending the life cycle of poverty. Affordable housing can provide long term financial stability and improved quality of life. A contextual reading of housing in the Bible has a revolutionary potential to make a tangible difference in the lives of poorer Christians living in the margins. The acceptance of reading the Bible with a focus on select contextual themes is not going to be easy or quick. I know it will be a long and difficult task. Perhaps the best way forward is to take a small step.