Discerning What is Right (I Kg. 3:5-12; Rom. 8:28-30; Mt. 13:44-52)

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 25-August 1, 1990, p. 699, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The academic language of distancing analysis and explanation also serves to obfuscate the clear moral dimensions of life and the need to choose between right and wrong. On some issues, analysis and explanation are themselves a form of collusion.

How can God reach us through little pieces of text in a lectionary? How can God break through our enslavement to our various idolatries and gift us? Perhaps by forcing us to hear many different voices besides our own so that we can find -- in the space between the voices -- some room for freedom. I realized this as I reflected on these texts -- Solomon’s prayer for wisdom rather than riches, Jesus’ parables of treasure and pearl and fishes, and Paul’s affirmation that God works for good with (or for) those who love him.

Each text contained an irritant. I was uncomfortable with a young man’s knowing what wisdom was even before he asked and his having been granted so speedily "understanding to discern what is right." I felt uneasy with the disciples’ blithe assurance when asked about the meaning of the parables that, indeed, they did understand. And I cringed at Paul’s uttering what I saw as a cliché -- that "everything works together for good" if one loves God.

I am a professional academic who teaches in a department of religious studies in a large state university. I am committed to rejecting -- in the name of intellectual integrity -- any pretense of being wise or even being right. I am a paid player, after all, in the big leagues of "value-free" intellectual inquiry. My colleagues and I snigger at graduate school applicants who profess the desire to gain wisdom. We repulse undergraduates who seek in our classes any answer to "what is right." We disdain "knowing how to rule this people." And as professional critics we reject any appeal to a transcendent power at work in history, much less one that "works for good in all things."

But I have made the mistake, for just a moment, of allowing myself to hear these words as though they were true, as though they held a message for me. And now I am exposed in my false consciousness. These texts speak so straightforwardly about the getting and use of wisdom. They liberate me. They show me first why they embarrass me: because I am committed to a pretense of detached scholarship and existential ambiguity that excuses me from the vigorous demands of wisdom, which is all about deciding what is right and what is wrong. I allow myself, by my observer standpoint and scholarly method, to absent myself from any confrontation either in my teaching or in my life with the pressing issues of right and wrong. I can teach "religious studies" as though it were a branch of aesthetics, never allowing either myself or my students to be challenged by "the discernment of right and wrong" that is wisdom.

Unlike Solomon, I have made no firm choice between this gift to be used for ruling, and riches or power. I want tenure, higher salary and the freedom to criticize without responsibility. Unlike the disciples, I am not willing to sell everything for the single pearl or the buried treasure; I am not willing to risk my precious academic reputation by speaking out on anything important. No wonder I read Paul’s affirmation as a cliché, for I have no firm understanding of reality as revealing the work of God.

These texts cracked my mind open just wide enough to allow me to hear two other voices. At mass recently we read from John 10, and in his sermon my pastor observed that sheep recognize and heed the voice of their master. "Whose voice do you hear and obey?" he asked us. More squirming in the pew. Then last night as I was flipping through the TV channels looking for a good ballgame I came upon an antiabortion film on the Christian Television Channel. It showed pictures of the fetuses lying on tables after being aborted. I could not stop staring at them. All I could see were the pictures of the crumbled, broken, emaciated, skeletal corpses at Dachau I first saw in an illustrated history when I was a child. They looked the same. For the first time the analogy of America’s abortion practices and the Holocaust made sense. I listened to the testimony of the nurses and doctors who had worked in those abortion clinics, and I heard the echoes of Mengele and the language of deceit and euphemism that we have condemned universally since discovering that genocide, that collusion in evil.

And then I recognized that my academic language of distancing analysis and explanation also served to obfuscate the clear moral dimensions of life and the need to choose between right and wrong, and that on some issues analysis or explanation is itself a form of collusion. So these words go to me, and I can no longer not speak my private conviction that abortion is the taking of human life, and that what we are colluding in is a form of evil, a lie begetting other lies.

No, I do not know how to live with both the moral imperative and the legal constraints of a pluralistic society. But I can no longer keep silent about my moral convictions in the name of scholarship or tolerance. Knowing this -- finally -- I also recognized for the first time that Paul’s statement was not a cliché but a call to action. In the best reading of the Greek:

"God works together (synergei) with those who love him toward the good." God needs those who love him to work with him. I don’t yet know what will be demanded of me by this choice between working for life and working in behalf of death. But I know it demands wisdom, and wisdom is "the discerning mind to chose between good and evil."