“Oh, you’re So-and-So’s sister!”
There are, perhaps, no more daunting and deflating words that any sibling can hear. They are an immediate sign that the person to whom you are speaking is already assessing and evaluating you—over and against the pattern of your sibling. For better or for worse, you will forever be defined by comparison.
I’m the oldest of three sisters, and I know my younger siblings dreaded these words from teachers, who had first me, then each of them in turn. They knew from the start that they wouldn’t have a blank slate; they were always being held in comparison to some standard that I had set. As the quiet introvert, in contrast to my much more popular and extroverted sisters, I heard them often enough myself. They were usually accompanied by confusion about how different we are—my dark hair to their blonde, my nerdiness to their popularity. But occasionally there was also surprise about our similarities—phrases and mannerisms that we share, inside jokes based on beloved movies or memories that tied us together in a deep and unbreakable way.
As hard as that lifetime of comparison is for all siblings, it might have been hardest of all for James of Jerusalem, whose feast we celebrate today. “Oh, you’re Jesus’ brother!” he would have heard, his entire life.
And in those words were layer upon layer of meaning.
- “Oh, you’re the brother of God incarnate!” said with hushed reverence.
- “Oh, you’re the brother of the man who claims he’s God!” said with scorn and disdain.
- “Oh, you’re the brother of the man who makes the lame walk and the blind see!” said with the implied addition of “And what have you done lately?”
- “Oh, you’re the brother of the man who teaches with astonishing authority and knowledge?” said with a quizzical intonation.
If anyone, in the history of the world had a reason to resent his brother, it was James, the brother of Jesus. And yet, that’s not what happened. Oh, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. James did not follow Jesus in his lifetime, and was not there by his side when he died. But James became one of the pillars of the church, preaching and spreading the gospel like wildfire. James became a saint in his own right, converting people to Christianity, praying for them diligently, serving them faithfully.
James was dedicated to his brother, without being completely defined by him. He found a way, not to resent who is brother was and who he wasn’t, but to embrace both his brother’s identity and his own call. He was not Jesus, and never could be. But he was James, and he could serve God as who he was.
As a parent of two girls, I often think about both the gifts and struggles of being a sibling. My girls share a room, pass down clothes, and go to a school where they have many of the same teachers. They will (and already do) face the challenge of always being defined over and against one another. But they also have the great gift of being friends for their whole lives; no one on earth will know them like their sister does. My prayers for them are encouraged by the example of James—may they find ways to be in relationship without resentment, may they be dedicated to one another without being defined by each other, may they find a way to embrace their shared identity while each discovering their own unique call.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]