“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20). Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was born in a borrowed manger, had no fixed address once he began his public ministry, and was buried in another man’s grave. It is quite an irony: He who made the universe became a homeless person.
The news makes us aware of the plight of millions of refugees driven from their homes by war, but homelessness is literally also right on our doorstep. Because the problem is perennial, there is a danger that, like the rich man in the parable, we no longer see the Lazarus we practically have to step over.
This corporal work of mercy forces us to open our eyes to the misery of those who, for a variety of reasons, have no place they can call home. We do not allow dogs or cats to stray on our streets, but we become numb to the fate of our own brothers and sisters.
Faith communities, including the Catholic Church, make efforts to provide shelter for the homeless. These initiatives deserve our financial support and, if possible, our volunteer efforts. Along with providing a temporary roof over their heads, we need to help those homeless who are able to do so to get back on their feet and accompany them on the difficult path that leads to the dignity of being able to afford a place to stay. This can involve helping with job skills or offering employment. Whenever possible, we should give a hand up as well as a handout. We should also encourage efforts to provide for affordable housing in the Bay Area, one of the priciest real estate markets in our country.
Even as we grapple as a society and Church with the overarching challenge of homelessness, there still are those poor individuals we encounter every day who, like the Son of Man, have nowhere to lay their head. Some of them suffer from serious mental illness and are beyond the help of any but those with professional training. But a kind word, and some spare change, can brighten their day. As with the other works of mercy, sheltering the homeless requires discernment and the stewardship of our resources. Yet when in doubt, it is better to err on the side of charity. The patron of parish priests, St. John Vianney, was told that a beggar to whom he gave frequent assistance was in fact not poor at all; he answered, “You never lose when you give to God.”
This work of mercy also invites to ask ourselves how hospitable we are. Do we make of our home a place where guests feel welcome and cherished? Do we create an environment where those who are not literally homeless but feel adrift and isolated find a welcome? The Letter to the Hebrews urges us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). Sometimes it is easier to imagine that the stranger might be an angel than it is to see that someone in our own family or among acquaintances is one.
In short, this work of mercy can be summed up in the direct words of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Let all guests be received like Christ.”