Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshipped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshipping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of heir practices or their stubborn ways.
Then someone came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself." The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The era of the judges covers two centuries, from the first settlement in Canaan under Joshua until the inauguration of the monarchy under king Saul. This era saw various problems facing the people of Israel. The Book of Judges captures this variety in popular stories, at times echoing tales from the sanctuary, like Deborah's poetic masterpiece in ch. 5, or tales from the soldiers' campfire at night, like the humorous, even bawdy story of Ehud in 3:12-30 or of Samson in chaps. 13-16. These stories weave a theological thread, its pattern seen most clearly in today's text: 1) sin always brings sorrow and oppression; 2) grief leads the people to cry to God for mercy; 3) God replies by sending a judge or national hero; 4) the new peace and prosperity degenerate into injustice and sensuality; so the cycle starts all over again.
The story of the judges often mirrors our story too. Often we find it harder to deal with success than with failure. The Bible sees the land of Canaan as the land of promise, the goal of the exodus, the reward pledged to the patriarchs who were buried in its soil. Yet that land is also a risk, a temptation, an inducement to selfishness and sensuality. Israel's deepest instinct is in their determination to return to the land: from the slavery of Egypt, from the exile in Babylon, from their present diaspora around the world. When misuse of talents and gifts leads to sorrow and loss, this theological introduction to Judges sees the hand of God in the punishment. Throughout the Bible the punishment for sin is seen as disciplinary, to purify and sanctify us anew and enable us to start over again.
In the gospel Jesus declares that the best use of our gifts, talents and assets is by sharing them with others. Everyone is called to this positive and generous interaction; and some may even be called literally to give up everything and to own nothing for the sake of the kingdom. Sooner or later all are asked to share of our best. We are being led deeply into the mystery of the kingdom where actions are not judged by worldly wisdom but by the instincts of faith.
There is something appealing about the question put to our Lord in today's gospel. It comes from an earnest young man who was serious about finding the way to eternal life. It is a serious question, "What must I do to possess eternal life?" In his reply Jesus named a number of commandments, all of which have to do with how we are to relate to other people. Jesus indicates that the way to life for ourselves entails relating in a life-giving way to others. This young man was not satisfied with this answer because he felt he was already doing what Jesus was requiring and yet he knew there was more he could be doing. When Jesus revealed what this "more" would involve for this particular young man, it again had to do with his relationship to others, in particular the poor, the needy. He was called on to sell what he had and give the money to the poor. This was a step too far for him.
Jesus did not make this particular demand of everyone he encountered. Yet, for all of us, the path to life, the path of life, will always be the path of love, of loving relationships with others. By his teaching, by his life and his death, Jesus shows us what relating in a loving way to others looks like.