There’s a story told of a man who hasn’t lived the best of lives arriving at the Pearly Gates and asking Saint Peter if he may come through the gates and into Heaven. Saint Peter knows the man by reputation and scratches his head and says, “well, if you can tell me one good thing that you did during your life, then I’ll let you in.”
The man answers, “once, I saw an old lady being mugged by a gang of thugs and I ran up to them and punched the ring-leader in the face and the old lady was able to get away.”
”Wow,” said Saint Peter, “I am impressed. When did this happen?”
“About forty seconds ago,” said the man.
I always enjoyed that story. Not being a saintly sort of person, the idea that you might get a place in heaven with a single act of kindness always seemed appealing. Of course, it didn’t match with Christian teaching, but there always seemed something slightly unjust in the idea that you could get to heaven by saying the right words, while someone who spent their life being kind would be turned away because they hadn’t recited the right verses of Scripture.
Thinking about one good thing I had done that might be suggested to Saint Peter, the possibilities were not plentiful. Being paid to care about people, there wasn’t really much by way of true altruism. It’s not hard to be nice when you are generously rewarded for being so.
If I had to pick one good thing, what would be it? I racked my brains to think of something. Finally, a moment came to mind.
Riding in a jeep along a bumpy African road in the middle of a Friday morning, we came to a village where crowds of people were buying and selling produce. We edged through the crowd, very slowly. Ahead, a young delivery man was pushing an old black bicycle. On the back of the bicycle, attached to the carrier there were crates of beer bottles, stacked one on top of the other. Perhaps six crates high, the stack was hard work to push. The man saw us approaching and attempted to move out of the way. The bicycle jack-knifed and the whole stack toppled to ground with the sound of breaking glass. The man stood with a look of desperation – he threw his arms in the air and shook. Taking out the only Rwandan money I had, I gave the driver a 5,000 Franc note to give to the man. It was not much, about €7.
When we reached out destination, our host said the driver had told him that I had been generous. All I could think was how inadequate my response had been.
Driving back through the village later in the afternoon, a small stack of broken bottles marked the place of the toppling. There were perhaps half a dozen, most of the bottles must have stayed in the crates. I felt better at seeing the broken glass, perhaps the money had been enough to cover the losses.
Enough to get into heaven? Probably not.