Why do so many of us Christians fail to obey Jesus’ challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount? According to Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy, one reason is that while we trust in him for salvation—as if he were merely the mechanism by which God saves us—we don’t trust the words he says. Instead of being (to say the very least) the moral and ethical genius that he clearly was (and is), we worry that he didn’t really know what he’s talking about.
Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christiains alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart.
Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.
A well-known “scholarly” picture has him wandering the hills of Palestine, deeply confused about who he was and even about crucial points in his basic topic, the kingdom of the heavens. From time to time he perhaps utters disconnected though profound and vaguely radical irrelevancies, now obscurely preserved in our Gospels.
Would you be able to trust your life to such a person? If this is how he seems to you, are you going to be inclined to become his student? Of course not. We all know that action must be based on knowledge, and we grant the right to lead and teach only to those we believe to know what is real and what is best.[†]
What if Jesus is, in fact, the smartest man who ever lived? In addition (obviously) to his being God’s only begotten Son—God from God, light from light, true God from true God? Does that change our willingness to trust him when he tells us how we should live our lives?
In case you doubt that Willard is on to something, remember the scorn that greeted presidential candidate George W. Bush in 1999 when he answered, “Christ,” in response to the question, “Name the political philosopher or thinker with whom you most identify?”
Wasn’t Jesus at least a great “political philosopher or thinker”? Among many other things, he led the most successful (only successful?) revolution in history! Yet many Americans thought the answer was preposterous back in 1999.
† Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.