In the gospel lesson from the third Sunday in Lent, Jesus confronts the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. When asked whether God was punishing the people who had died at the hands of Pilate or when the tower of Siloam fell because of their sin he says clearly and unequivocally "No!" God does not use random acts of violence, whether natural or human initiated, as punishment for sin.
So far, so good. It is what Jesus says after "No!" that is troubling. He says, "I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." (Luke 13:3,5).
I began to puzzle over what Jesus might have had in mind by citing repentance as the way to be saved from perishing. Repentance traditionally means to be sorry for your sins. So does Jesus mean that you had better be sorry for your sins and ask for forgiveness or God will see to it that something bad happens to you? Such a notion would negate what Jesus had just established - that victims of accidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, political slaughter, or whatever else are not being punished by God for sin.
The puzzle was solved as I was listening to a report on NPR about a documentary on the life of Bill Withers, the famous singer/songwriter from the 70's and 80's. They played a song he wrote called "Grandma's hands. The first verse goes like this:
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Played a tambourine so well
Used to issue out a warning
She'd say, "Billy don't you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
"Might be snakes there in that grass"
Here Withers paints a picture of repentance that also saves one from perishing. His Grandma was warning: "away from my safe strong hands there is danger." Running fast means you are running away from Grandma's safe, strong hands and in so doing you might perish, or at least get hurt. But by turning from running away and by turning toward those strong, secure hands, you would be safe.
The word for "repentance" in the original language of the New Testament means "to turn" - to "turn around" - to "return." Sorrow for sin and the need for forgiveness is one way to turn around and turn toward the safety and grace of God. But the danger Jesus warns us of is not that God will punish us for our sin if we do not repent, but rather that by running away from God's safe, strong hands, we are in danger of perishing. He admonishes us to "turn around," don't run away so fast, and return to the safety of God's loving hands.
Give a listen to the whole song by clicking here. Picture God as the Grandmother, and her hands as the place where we find refuge and strength - a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1). In this season of Lent we do well to heed the warning of Jesus to return to those sure, strong, forgiving hands of God.