Monday 15 August 2022


Thank you to all those who have read last week's blogpost, the first in this series of six. It was exciting to get around a dozen direct responses and to see that the blog spot site is showing eighty views in the last seven days. If you missed it, here's the link:

When I studied history as an A-level student, the 17th century was my period. Ever since, I have been fascinated by the explosion of ideas and the turning upside down of the world in the Civil War. Out of that turmoil, came a new church: the Quaker church. One of the  fundamentals of the Quaker faith is a rejection of war and violence. Quakers are following the teachings of Jesus. 

In this week's blogpost, I explore the teachings of Jesus about money. If we were to follow those teachings, we really would see the world turned upside down. 

I am realizing, as I reflect upon my own writings during the month of July when I put these six blogposts together, that my research and the ideas I share do point in a radical direction. That, I think, is just as well, given the state of the planet.         



My encounter with the words attributed to Mark in his gospel has been shaped by my training as a historian. 

Well, that's a good question! I wrote a doctoral thesis called "Drink in Victorian Norwich" (2003) to get my qualification as a proper historian.   

There is an academic consensus that this book written by Mark: 

  •  is a testimony to Jesus of Nazareth being the long-awaited Jewish messiah.  
  • was written between 66 AD and 74 AD, a generation after the execution of that charismatic preacher - and contains authentic detail about the sayings of this man, Jesus.
  • contains substantive evidence that Jesus, who was brought up to become a carpenter like his father, became a preacher convinced of his own mission to follow what he saw as a path set out by the transcendental power that he, as a Jew, called the one and only God. He was certain that he and others were all, in a sense, children of God.
  • is shaped by the beliefs and culture of the time, as all thoughts and books are. The world that Jesus lived in was one where demons abound and faith-healing and miracles were expected, where there were arguments between Jews about whether there was life after death and if so whether there was a resurrection of the body, and where there was discussion about how the Christ would appear - the Messiah who had been promised to the Jewish people in their holy scriptures. All this, at a time when their land was occupied by the imperial Roman authorities - a fact that was seen by many Jews, not least it seems Jesus, as yet another portent that they were living through the end-time. Life would only get better, and the prophecies on which they laid so much weight would only be fulfilled, when their own dreadful times were brought to an end by their creator God.
  • stands as an eschatological document, soaked in the end-times beliefs of the carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee and further molded by the end-times conviction that Mark brought to his understanding of the life of Jesus and its significance in his writing for like-minded Christians.
  • is unlike the other Gospels. For instance, unlike John, Mark never calls Jesus "God", or claims that Jesus existed prior to his earthly life; unlike Matthew and Luke, the author does not mention a virgin birth, and apparently believes that Jesus had a normal human parentage and birth. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark makes no attempt to trace Jesus' ancestry back to King David or Adam with a genealogy.

A fruit of the science of forensic anthropology, gifted in 2002 - a representation of what will never be known: a best-fit face of the charismatic preacher, Jesus. 

For my part, I don't believe in demons. I don't believe in Satan as a living creature. I don't believe that the sun and moon travel round the earth every twenty-four hours, as Jesus and his followers would have done. I don't believe in miracles; there will always be a natural explanation of the seemingly supernatural. I don't believe we can know whether there is life after death; it seems to me that the available evidence suggests that there is not. I don't believe that prophecies from the past should shape the way we live life today. I don't believe in the literal truth of the resurrection story that ends the gospel of Mark and was critical to the beliefs of the first Christians and those that followed for so many centuries of Christian worship - and still underpins the beliefs of the majority of Christians in the world today, east and west, north and south.   

I am a man who believes in the provisional truths revealed by our human pursuit of what we call science. I mistrust the certainties of those who claim to know the truth of a revealed religion and to  understand the nature and demands of the God Almighty.

I do, though, quoting Hamlet, believe "that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". Whilst I trust that scientific research will reveal more about our human nature, I sense that there are matters we may never fathom. Silence and awe can be the most appropriate responses in the here and now. I find deep meaning in the Hebrew belief that we are made in the image of God. When I was in my teens, I relished the notion of Paul Tillich (1886-1965) that Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich made popular in his book 'Honest to God': God is the ground of being, the ground of the structure of being. Like them, I distance myself from the anthropomorphic idea of a personal God. 

Here we have the essence of Tillich's wisdom

I do believe there is purpose in our existence - and that we can have some inkling of what that might be. I also believe, as Jesus did, that the species has rather lost its way. Many of us are living diminished lives. Jesus' call was 'Repent, and believe the Good News.' (Mark, 1:15) He did not simply mean be sorry for sinning; he was urging people to change the way they were living.   

In essence, that shared belief explains why I became a follower of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and now am able to call myself a Quaker, albeit a novice. I said earlier that Mark's book contains authentic detail about the sayings of Jesus. Thank goodness, for they are words that transcend the Palestinian landscape in which they were uttered. They speak to me today. They help me make sense of the world I am living in. They provide insights into possible answers to the kind of questions that so many have, over time, asked about the meaning of our existence. 

I will explore further, in the last three blogposts in this series, my reflections on the nature of humanity and what Jesus saw going wrong. My debt to the brilliance and insight of the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, will become obvious. His work 'Human kind - A Hopeful History' (2020) is of seminal importance in resetting the big picture of human development. 

It has been the nudges of the Spirit in the hour of Quaker silence that have led me to attempt this synthesis of history, anthropology, biology, and theology. If I am to prize the words of Jesus about how we can be fully human, I must in good conscience present a justification for that valuing which takes account of the nature of our being as we evolved into a separate species, homo sapiens. Most people ignore the fact that the carpenter-turned-preacher from Galilee would have had no idea that he was a member of a species that had evolved from the higher primates. But that ignorance did not prevent him from offering wisdom. He had learned from experience that something was not working in society. He offered a radical and subversive explanation for what was going wrong.    

I find it quite natural to want to identify with this man and try to live in the way he said would lead to a good life. I acknowledge my feeling of discipleship. I don't fully understand what was going on when I had my gentle conversion experience in my mid-thirties - but I do feel that it has brought goodness into my life. My world has been enriched - and my potential to do good has grown. And that is enough. Judge a faith by the works that follow.

A suitably subversive image

Let me give you a taste of these sayings of Jesus that seem to me to transcend his time and place:

  • How angry must he have made the elders of his faith when he exposed the limitations of the dietary regulations that all Jews should follow. 'Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean.' (Mark, 7:15-16) And then the formal identification of what makes a man bad: 'For it is from within, from men's hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly.' (Mark, 7:21-23) Whenever human beings gather together in a community, across all cultures, these twelve 'evils' will serve to disintegrate that society. 
  • Jesus had a vision of the perfect world - the kingdom of God. I love the way in which he corrects his disciples who turned away the little children who were being brought to him for a blessing. 'I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' (Mark, 10:15-16) Emphatic, absolute clarity. If you want to repent and change your ways in order to discover the fruits of atonement, the joy of being at one with yourself and others, you need to rid yourself of all the luggage associated with adult misunderstanding and corrupted ideas. Humility and a return to innocence are essential for a true change of heart.
  • That wonderful insight is followed immediately by the first of the teachings about the dangers of wealth. Jesus was addressing a man who claimed that he had followed all the formal teachings of his faith but still was unsure if he had done enough. 'Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, 'There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' (Mark, 10:21) But the man possessed great wealth and it was a step too far. 
  • Jesus continued, developing this diatribe against wealth to the astonishment of his disciples: 'How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!' (Mark, 10: 23-24) 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' (Mark, 10:26) I have been told that this mention of a camel and needle, is a reference to a tiny gate in the walls around Jerusalem that was notoriously difficult for a laden camel to pass through. The carpenter-turned-preacher had a marvelous turn of imagery. I am sure I don't need to labour the point when I say that here is a foundation stone for my identity as a Christian Socialist.
  • One final saying to consider: When Jesus was asked which was the most important commandment, he replied '... you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength'. (Mark, 12:30) Living a life in faith needs an absolute commitment. He then added a second part to this greatest commandment: 'You must love your neighbour as yourself' (Mark, 12:31) Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan brilliantly turned this traditional Jewish teaching on its head: now, the stranger, the outsider, even your enemy, was to be regarded as your neighbour. We are all one in the Light of God.   
There we have it, in a nutshell. As I understand this teaching, we need to centre on that which we know as God, which for me is the ground of my being and the ground of everyone else's being. Worship means being true to the guiding Light of God that lives in all of us. The Quaker authorised text Advices & Queries (1994) states: 'We have found corporately that the spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading. (p.3) And then again, 'Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.' (p.5)

The Quaker bookshop can be found online at this address - press here.

Thank you for sharing this personal journey of mine which has taken me through the sayings of Jesus recorded in Mark, the earliest of the gospels. I hope it has been thought-provoking and worthwhile. Next week, I focus on a Quaker study day we attended earlier this year.


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