Today we begin to read from the Book of Judges, a book of the Hebrew Scriptures which follows the Book of Joshua. The term "judge" should not be understood in any judicial sense. Rather, these men and women were seen as leaders of their communities. The term judges may come from the fact that they were seen as "just." (The Lectionary for Daily Mass includes only four days of readings from this book.)
The Book of Judges begins with two introductory passages. Chapter one of Judges gives a description of the situation in Canaan after the Israelite conquest. It emphasizes the continued existence of the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan in many parts of the land because of Israel's inability to drive them out completely. The second passage, which we read today, is a thematic introduction to the period of the Judges, describing a cyclical pattern of infidelity, oppression, "crying out," and deliverance. The Book includes the histories of twelve judges, six "major" judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) and six "minor" (Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon). A thirteenth is mentioned (Abimelech); however, his story is really a continuation of the story of Gideon.
While the exploits and the accomplishments of some of the major judges are well known to us, particularly those of Samson, the Book of Judges is really about God's willingness to forgive. In each situation, the Israelites have strayed from the covenant relationship and find themselves in dire straits. They interpret their dire situation to the fact that they have sinned. The judge in question leads the community back to right relationship with God and delivers them from oppression. Each time this happens, it also includes a "confession" on the part of the Israelites that they realize that they have sinned and repent of it. So in many ways, while this book seems to uphold the Theology of Retribution of which I have written on several occasions, it also confirms the idea that God forgives and forgets no matter how many times the people stray. God never forsakes the covenant.
We, of course, know this lesson all too well. Each time we confess our sins, we realize that we have sinned in the same way over and over again. I have heard so many penitents say it: "I always seem to have to confess the same sins." The truth of the matter is that this is true for all of us. Habits, especially bad habits, are hard to break. We do not have the strength to overcome sin. However, just as God sent judges to deliver Israel, we also have been sent a judge. Jesus stands as our deliverer, our advocate, and our sacrificial offering. We can, therefore, rely on God's mercy as soon as we confess our sins and express our sorrow.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator