I am Joseph, named after my father. I grew up with four brothers and plenty of sisters in a midsized town in Northern Israel called Nazareth. We were in the construction business: stone masonry, wooden farm implements; you name it – my father taught my brothers and me to build it. And we were fairly successful. Unfortunately, Dad died when I was still fairly young. Normally in our culture the oldest son takes his father’s place in the family business – but our family wasn’t exactly normal.
You see, my oldest brother Yeshua was different; I mean really different. There were rumors about Him, stories that He wasn’t actually my father’s son. My older brother James and I got into quite a few fights to defend my mother’s honor. She and my dad didn’t do much to quash those rumors. And later, my mother calmly accepted it when Yeshua left the family business to become an itinerant rabbi.
Soon He had quite a following. Many began to claim He was some kind of a miracle worker, or even the Messiah. To me He was just the guy who didn’t step up when Dad died, the brother who left the family business for something I couldn’t understand.
One day we heard Yeshua was back in town and a huge crowd had gathered around Him. My mother asked us boys to go with her to get our brother, to bring Him home. He knew we were just outside the crowd but He wouldn’t even come talk to us. He just turned to some of His fans and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother." As though they were His real family. I’d never been more hurt or humiliated. And what was all that about His father in heaven? It sounded as though he were claiming to be … well, God. And some people actually believed it! Of course those who didn’t either laughed at Him (and us) or got mad. Really mad. Either way, it was incredibly embarrassing.
James and I just wanted Him gone. Even though we knew He would have trouble if He tried His act in Jerusalem, one year (when it came time for the Feast of Tabernacles), James and I taunted Him to go there anyways.
Well, Yeshua wasn’t going to let us push His buttons, but eventually He did go to Jerusalem. If James and I thought life would get easier, we were wrong. One day we’d hear how the crowds loved our older brother and the next how some of the religious authorities were accusing Him of being in league with demons. Springtime came, and He was finally arrested.
Of course we were all upset, especially my mother – but I’m ashamed to say that deep down, I was actually relieved. I’d been avoiding Jerusalem, even though it was Passover time, even though I knew that my brother was risking His life by going back there to celebrate the feast.
Later I heard how quickly things turned ugly. Within hours of His arrest, my big brother was tortured and executed on a cross. I was horrified. I never wanted Him to suffer and die like that. And yet, there was part of me that couldn’t help feeling, "Maybe life will get back to normal now." But it didn’t.
My mother never came home. As she was watching Yeshua die, He told her and His friend John to consider each other mother and son, and John would take care of her. To my astonishment, she accepted the whole thing. It seemed like even in His death Jesus was messing up my life and my family.
But then came the ultimate betrayal. My brother James – who’d always stood with me, always shared my anger and frustration over Yeshua – left me, left the family business. Why? He’d heard the same crazy rumor I did … that more than 500 people claimed to see our brother alive after His death. Unlike me, James went to check it out for himself. Incredibly, he, too, said he saw Jesus – alive again!
As much as I lamented James’ seeming delusions, as much as I hated his leaving the family business, it wasn’t long before I found myself admiring who he had become. Yeshua’s followers made James a leader in their community – and they called him "James the Just" (which, if you knew my brother growing up, is more than a little ironic).
I guess the most amazing part of it all was the way James had joy, even in the midst of many great difficulties. He was no longer angry and quick-tempered. He became incredibly kind, even to those who were angry and self righteous – yes, even to me after I spat at him and called him a traitor. James was always trying to talk to me about Yeshua, but I would push back, "Hey, I believe in God, that’s enough for me." James would just shake his head and tell me anyone can believe in God but that wasn’t the same as having a relationship with God. He insisted that would only happen if I called on the name of Yeshua. One of his favorite sayings was, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you."
And then one day James was arrested. The religious authorities demanded he stop his "blasphemous" preaching. I went to visit him in his jail cell. I pled with him to stop talking about our brother, to please, please, save his own life. But James just smiled at me sadly.
The very next day I went to the Temple to watch as they brought my brother out to the crowd. Instead of renouncing his faith, James testified to his love for Yeshua. In a rage, his accusers grabbed him and threw him down from the parapet of the Temple. Before I could get to my brother’s side, someone had beaten the last bit of life out of him. As the final blow struck my brother James, I heard my voice scream out "Yeshua!"
I thought I was screaming out for my brother James, but the shock of hearing myself call on the name of "Yeshua," made me realize I’d been running from the truth for too long. James had been truly transformed. He was not the one who was delusional. His words kept coming back to me: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you." When I called out to Yeshua that awful day, that is exactly what happened. God drew near to me right then, in the midst of my pain and sorrow and loss. I knew He was real. I knew He was true. And now I, too, follow in the footsteps of my brother James and my half brother, the Lord Jesus. I guess it’s become our new family business.
I hope my imagining about Jesus’ siblings has helped you empathize with them, and to understand that to Jewish people today, Jesus is still "one of us" and yet strangely "other." Just as His family faced ridicule because of His mysterious birth, Jewish people who didn’t even exist during the crucifixion have been taunted and worse over His death. Jesus’ refusal to do and say what tradition and religious authorities dictated put His family and friends at risk back then … and it still puts His followers’ standing in the Jewish community at risk now. And yet when we do embrace Him, He helps us overcome every challenge and fulfills our Jewish identity in even more meaningful ways. Please pray that as we bring the message of the risen Jesus to His family according to the flesh, many will receive it and become part of His eternal family.
*Parts of this story are based on gospel accounts, epistles (particularly the book of James), and early church history.