Seven Times Seventy
The Call of James, Son of Alphaeus
In his mother’s womb he was not formed in the usual way. His brain didn’t form in the usual way, nor did his hands and feet. Learning to walk had been extraordinarily difficult and when he walked, he resembled a bird with broken wings flapping uselessly and awkwardly. He walked high on the balls of his feet leaning forward and lifting his feet high which only served to strengthen this avian comparison. His eyes drooped and his speech was thick and slow. He was born with the palsy but had managed to survive due to the efforts of his mother who clung fast to the deep conviction that her son was G-d’s greatest gift to her, her ‘angel-baby’. His father was not able to accept his son and was the first person who looked completely through him; he chose not to see his son and in all practical ways the son became invisible.
For the most part other people did not see him either. If they gave any thought to him, it was to wonder who had sinned, he or his parents, to be so punished by God. A common reaction to this person who looked different and spoke differently was ridicule and mean-spirited mimicry. What they didn’t know, was that his heart was also not formed in the usual way, but was exquisitely fashioned by the hand of the Almighty with great sensitivity to the pain of others and near in-sensitivity to his own pain. He was also given an inordinate capacity for love and forgiveness. His mother had given him the name James, son of his father Alphaeus.
There was a time as James grew up that he thought his name was ‘Stupid’ because he heard the word so often in reference to himself. His mother explained to him that his name was James and that the word ‘stupid’ was not polite and that he must forgive those who said it. This happened so often that James himself finally understood that this was happening over and over again and he asked his mother, “how many times must I forgive?” His mother’s answer, “Seven times seventy!” For James this was an impossibly large number, but it stuck in his memory and when someone would try to hurt him with their words, James would blurt out, “Seven times seventy!” in his thick and slow manner. Of course, his verbose assailants did not understand his meaning and would leave him alone rather than begin to feel stupid themselves. (There’s something especially pathetic about a person who must taunt and bully a disabled person. I still recall a very severe scolding from my own mother for making fun of such a person. I never did that again!)
In her slow dying days, James’ old mother had not objected when he formed a fast friendship with the young Rabbi Jesus, for she knew she was not long for this world and that James must find his way in a largely hostile world. She wished, however, that the Rabbi wouldn’t spend so much time with sinners. She was fearful of the way they might treat her angel-baby James. Jesus had come to her one evening and she had earnestly enjoined him to take care of her son, for she had seen at first hand how cruel people can be to others, especially to those at a disadvantage.
And the Rabbi took her hand in his and assured the old mother saying, “he will be with us and he will be one of us, you can be certain. But I will not call him to take care of him. I will call him because he has so much to teach us, if we will choose to learn from him. You may rest peacefully knowing that your life has been well lived and that your son has a true heart.”
At the very last James’ old mother looked upon her son and tears came to her eyes and she mouthed the words, “I love you,” and “Seven times seventy.”
The old woman was buried. James’s grief was profound and he cried and cried for his mother, but then, all at once, he stopped grieving and made ready to embark on his life as a disciple of the Rabbi.
James, when presented to the others as a disciple, cried out thick and slow, “Seven times seventy!” and laughed. After a long, awkward moment as the men considered their new member, James cried out, “Seven times seventy,” and again he laughed. All that Peter was able to mutter in reply was, “Yes, seven times seventy! Big deal. Four hundred…ah…ah…fifty.” And to punctuate their understanding, James cried out again, “Seven times seventy!”
Peter and the others, at a loss as to how to take this statement, looked to Jesus for an explanation and the Rabbi said “I’m not sure myself, but it seems important to James.”