What if the older brother is Jesus?

Once during adoration, someone nudged me in the ribs with an elbow. Which was odd, because the only other person in the room was an old man in high pants, deep in prayer or possibly fast asleep, way on the other side of the chapel.

Well, he wasn’t the only other person in the room. I was, of course, at adoration to visit that other Person in the room. And there he was, jabbing me in the ribs, for some reason. I had been reading something about Jesus as brother, and there he was, by my side, pestering me.

It is hard to tell stories like this without coming across as spiritually self-congratulatory and/or insane. No, Christ did not appear in the flesh, and there were no beams of light or audible hosannas, but I sure felt that elbow with my actual, physical nerves.

I can still feel it, years later. It has meant different things to me at different times. One thing: Jesus is not a glowy, hollow-eyed, bleachy-robed, mystical, ultraman but a man, a guy, who looked and acted so normally that most of the world assumed he was just another Jew. Just our brother.

I thought of that nudge, that “by your side” sensation, when I was chatting with my husband about the Prodigal Son, who had a brother, too: the infamous elder brother. Commonly, Christians assume the elder brother is the Jewish people, kicking up a fuss as the Gentiles are grafted onto the tree. Or else maybe the elder brother is all of us, everyone who has been a good child to the father, and just cannot deal with the screw-ups getting mercy and welcome.

But my husband asked: What if the elder son is Jesus? Jesus, our brother?

Read the rest of my 2017 essay on the prodigal son for America Magazine here

Image: The Prodigal Son by Albert Sterner, 1930. New York Public Library digital collections (Creative Commons) Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (“CCO 1.0 Dedication”)


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One thought on “What if the older brother is Jesus?”

  1. Great essay! A line that really stood out to me:

    “ I am not comfortable saying that Jesus is the elder son; but if he is my brother, he is brothers with the elder son, too. Even if he did not resent his little brother the way the elder son in the parable did, he almost certainly understood the resentment.”

    So when this parable was read at my Church, during the homily the priest basically trashed the stubborn elder brother. He called him stupid and warned us not to be like him.
    Since I could see myself a bit in the elder brother (while also realizing that he was wrong to be resentful of his younger brothers return) I thought the homily was a bit harsh and not…. Christ-like? Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it just didn’t seem kind to me.
    Just writing to say I like how your essay is sympathetic enough to the older brother.

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