By Kathy Berken
What value is a penny? Pretty much nothing these days. Even if you are old enough to remember penny candy, the best thing you can do with a penny now is drop it in the dish at the checkout counter. So, I was walking back from my garage where I had parked my bike and remembered that I had picked up a “lucky penny” somewhere along the way. I dug it out of my pocket and rubbed it between my fingers, then looked up to notice a woman leaning against a post by my building. She was looking at her phone, maybe waiting for a ride. I had a thought. I stopped right in front of her and said nothing. She looked up. I smiled, held out the penny, and said as cheerily as I could muster, “Here’s a lucky penny I just found and now it’s yours!”
You’d think I gave her a million dollars. She took the penny, studied it and smiled. Then she struck up a conversation about my shirt, the hot pink one from a long-ago Quad Cities Race for the Cure. She asked if I was participating in the event down the street, and I said, “Oh, no I was out biking by the river.” She had noticed my “special shirt” and connected the two. Handing her a practically worthless piece of metal and making light of it started a chain of unexpected events. I told her to have a great evening and she said, “You, too.” Smiling I walked into the building where a man standing by the inside door smiled back and held open the door. I imagined the passing of smiles all evening. God playing with dominoes, I suspect.
What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everybody do ordinary little gestures of kindness like this for others? They’re not special. They don’t change the world, which is precisely why I get down on myself for not having a huge purpose in life. Monumental events and towering objectives just aren’t me.
For example, today on my bike ride I stopped along the path and moved my bike to the side to take a picture of a tree. Looking down at my phone, trying to post it to Facebook, I could sense someone biking down the hill towards me. The rider shouted, “You okay there?!” “Yes, just fine!” I shouted back. Somebody who didn’t have to, cared enough to ask. This was not a big deal, not going to change the world. But if I was in trouble, I’m sure he would have stopped. I felt cared for and that felt good. Suddenly smiling, I got back on my bike and for the next five minutes, everyone I passed smiled back. That domino effect.
I thought about Jesus’ words: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Frankly, I’ve always been bothered by the “least” part of this verse. What makes somebody less than somebody else in God’s eyes? Nothing. But in my stories, the notion of “least” is not a judgment of the receiver. Rather, it’s about the giver. Doing little things with great love. Thank you, Mother Teresa.
Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant as well. Give someone a drink of water. Visit someone in the hospital. Give someone a coat. Simple works of mercy filled with love are powerful moments of grace.
Giving a stranger a lucky penny or asking a stranger, “You OK?” is holy. Think closely about the difference in the wording: “Whatever least thing you did to my brothers and sisters, you did that for me.”
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)