December 3, 2020

Holy Week with Zechariah (2): Woe to Toxic Leadership

Zacharias, Michelangelo

Zacharias, Michelangelo

Zechariah 9-14 was a key passage for the evangelists who told the story of Passion Week in the Gospels. In volume two of his “Christian Origins” series, Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright gives an overview of the subjects addressed in this text:

The writer promises the long-awaited arrival of the true king (9:9-10), the renewed covenant and the real return from exile (9:11-12), the violent defeat of Israel’s enemies and the rescue of the true people of YHWH (9:13-17). At the moment, however, Israel are like sheep without a shepherd (10:2); they have shepherds but they are not doing their job, and will be punished (10:3) as part of the divine plan for the return from exile (10:6-12). The prophet is himself instructed to act as a shepherd, but in doing so to symbolize the worthless shepherds who are currently ruling Israel (11:4-17). There will be a great battle between Israel and the nations, in which ‘the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of YHWH, at the head’ of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (12:1-9, quotation from verse 8). There will be great mourning for ‘one whom they have pierced’ (12:10; a ‘fountain…for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity’ (13:1); a judgment upon the prophets of Israel (13:2-6); and judgment, too, on the shepherd of Israel, who will be struck down, and the sheep scattered (13:7). In another reminiscence of Ezekiel, this will have the effect of destroying two-thirds of the people, while the remaining one-third will be purified, to be in truth the people of YHWH (13:8-9). The book concludes with the great drama in which all the nations will be gathered together to fight against Jerusalem; YHWH will win a great victory, becoming king indeed, judging the nations and sanctifying Jerusalem (14:1-21).

As you can see, this is a remarkable, complex section of prophecy. Analyzing it all is beyond the scope of our purpose here. We are simply observing that these rich texts inform the narrative of that fateful week in Jerusalem as told by the Gospel-writers. Many of these themes became visible at the climactic moment of Jesus’ life and ministry.

I encourage us all to read through Zechariah 9-14 during this Passion Week. May its powerful images awaken our sacred imaginations and make what happened to Jesus during that week more vivid to our minds and hearts, awakening faith and gratitude.

From N.T. Wright’s description, you can see that the metaphor of “shepherd” is important in Zechariah. Here are three key passages:

Shepherd Tending His Flock, Millet

Shepherd Tending His Flock, Millet

Zechariah 10:2-3
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
they suffer for lack of a shepherd.
My anger is hot against the shepherds,
and I will punish the leaders;
for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock…

Zechariah 11:17
Oh, my worthless shepherd,
who deserts the flock!
May the sword strike his arm
and his right eye!
Let his arm be completely withered,
his right eye utterly blinded!

Zechariah 13:7
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is my associate,”
says the Lord of hosts.
Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered…

Zechariah was called to proclaim God’s displeasure with the shepherds, the leaders of Judah after the exile. Zechariah 11:4-17 describes how the prophet went about doing that. He himself was commissioned to act the part of a shepherd over the besieged people, and his words and actions came to symbolize the toxic leadership of the day. [One interesting detail involves the shepherd’s wages in 11:12-13, which were “thirty shekels of silver,” which Zechariah took and threw into the temple treasury (cf. Matthew 27:3-5).] God describes the miserable state of the leadership in these terms: they do not “care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy but [they] devour the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs” (Zech. 11:16).

Passion Week was when Jesus similarly confronted the leaders of Israel in his day. Starting with the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-17) and the cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21:18-22), Jesus used symbolic actions and strong words to express divine judgment on the “shepherds” in Jerusalem. Groups of them immediately began questioning Jesus’ authority to say such things (Matt. 21:23-27), and for the rest of the week until he cloistered with his disciples in the upper room, Jesus and the leaders went at it in the streets. They confronted him, debated him, and bombarded him with questions meant to test him. In return, he spoke to them in parables and answered them in ways that confounded and infuriated them. It was deadly serious.

In Matthew’s Gospel, this escalating conflict reaches a crescendo in Matthew 23, when Jesus utters seven “woes” upon Israel’s leaders (the antithesis of the seven beatitudes with which he began his ministry – Matt. 5:3-12). In the final “woe,” he makes specific mention of Zechariah the prophet:

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

– Matthew 23:33-36, NRSV

One theme of Holy Week is God’s rejection of toxic religion, practiced by unscrupulous leaders. Jesus went into enemy territory in Jerusalem that week. The Lamb of God entered a den of wolves dressed up like shepherds. And he called them on it. Over and over and over again. Nearly every word from his mouth that week was a direct or indirect critique of their leadership, the burdens they were placing upon God’s people, and the looming destruction that would come upon them. He pronounced judgment upon these leaders, as Zechariah had done earlier, for refusing to “care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy but [they] devour the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs.” Jesus made them face the truth: they were devouring the very flock they were called to care for.

I don’t think I need to make specific application here to our own day, do I? Taking up a religious vocation as a way of enriching oneself and gaining a place of power and status has always been a temptation. The body count of victims is as impressive as it is repugnant. The wolves you will have with you always, and you can still hear them howling today. Some of us here at Internet Monk have fled to the wilderness because we’ve seen the hungry look in a shepherd’s eye and had the uncomfortable feeling we were on the menu. One of the reasons this site exists is to speak the truth about toxic religion and its purveyors.

But that is not the end of the story. Zechariah ultimately speaks of a Shepherd who gets struck down and his sheep scatter (Zech. 13:7). The context indicates that this is the source from which a fountain will flow to cleanse from sin and impurity (13:1). Jesus applies these words to himself in Matthew 26:31, just before going out to Gethsemane to fulfill his calling as a different kind of shepherd.

The good shepherd knows his own by name and cares for them.

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

On this holiest of weeks, Lord, save us from those who would devour us.


  1. petrushka1611 says

    “Some of us here at Internet Monk have fled to the wilderness because we’ve seen the hungry look in a shepherd’s eye and had the uncomfortable feeling we were on the menu.”

    Exactly. 🙁

  2. Somehow, we have gotten the idea that the answer to bad religion is not good religion, but no religion.

    • It’s a natural impulse, no? To avoid that which has hurt us? This is why we need, more than ever, shepherds who will act like Jesus, seeking and succoring the lost.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        It’s a natural impulse, no? To avoid that which has hurt us?

        The “Take Your God And Shove It!” reaction. Where you only know God as The Big Abuser. Where God and Christ are so associated with the abuse you received that you want no part of it, period.

        Remember Eagle? He went through that over the past few years, and came out the other side. Many don’t.

      • CM…that’s what you and so many other people do at this blog. I can’t describe how much I care about this blog and seeing it maintained and run. When you have your fundagelical burn job there are not a lot of places to go to, and many people won’t understand unless they have had a similar experience. But Internet Monk and Wartburg are a real hospital for those who are limping, wounded and hurting.

        Please keep doing what you are doing Chaplin Mike! 😀

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    One theme of Holy Week is God’s rejection of toxic religion, practiced by unscrupulous leaders.

    Toxic religion and unscrupulous leadership. Like you find covered on the spiritual abuse blogs (Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Sounding Board, Calvary Chapel Abuse, etc). Like Eagle and Christian Monist experienced.

  4. I used to congratulate myself on having avoided a lot of toxic religion, when it suddenly dawned on me that the people most likely to be deceived by “toxic” religion and “toxic” leaders are more earnest than I am. These are people who have a real hunger and thirst to follow Jesus without counting the cost. The fact that these lizards manipulate this very admirable impulse for their own aggrandizement makes it all more despicable.

    I can imagine someone like Eagle being hurt by manipulative religious shysters. I’m not up to that level. Someone like Mark Driscoll ordering me about would likely be told to blow it out his pie hole. I know I’m a lousy disciple. I want to watch “Game of Thrones” first. Without fast forwarding through Littlefinger’s bordello.

  5. David Cornwell says

    My wife’s sister was lured in by these false shepherds. She listened to them on television, purchased their books, and tapes, and devoured every word. In time she became ill with a form of ALS. Her thinking had already been corrupted for many years by propagandistic teaching. They promised healing, so she, for a long time denied she was even ill. It was some kind of trick perpetrated by the devil. She believed she would never die, but would be raptured out of her troubles and into the arms of Jesus in the sky.

    She sent a horde of preachers her money. Some she paid monthly through automatic payments from the bank. So even the legitimate debts she owed ran into trouble because of these lying prophets.

    The church to which she belonged saw what was happening. They formed a group to help her and give her protection. We lived 300 miles away, and were her only surviving relations. Toward the end we entered into an agreement with the church as to her care. All legal authority to make decisions was transferred to them. They intercepted her mail and stopped the payments (legal robbery). They made the medical decisions after consulting with us.

    This account could be long and complicated. However I think this story is an example of false and evil shepherds, and also of those who are just the opposite.

  6. One more quick thought….what gets me is how “toxic” is redefined. In the old days the “toxic” crowd was KJV only and used that as a weapon. Today the new “toxic” crowd is now only ESV only. Where as in the old days “toxic” and “legalistic” was no drinking and avoiding all talk about sex; today the new “toxic” and “legalistic” crowd says that drinking is fine and promotes perserve ways of having sex, however they abuse church discipline, create church covenants that prevent you from leaving, and silently hi-jack church congregations via SEBTS, or TED.

    Humans are so capable of redefining and recreating toxic in ways that its frightening. I guess this just goes to show how Ecclesiates is right…there is nothing new under the sun.

    • We always seem content to define people by the rules they follow, instead of how the treat people. You’re right, we redefine toxic never realizing we actually can see the heart of the matter, if we just look for kindness (or it’s absence).

  7. In Israel before, toxic leaders like the scribes and Pharisees–and Sadducees–were not only religious leaders; they were national leaders, and thus also major political leaders. As authorities of the law (of Moses), they interpreted, taught, and enforced this “constitution” of Israel. Jesus exposed them as thieves and bullies, and called his sheep/disciples to follow him instead, as the good shepherd (king).

    To apply this contrast between Jesus and Jewish leaders to toxic religious leaders today is only the beginning; for certain (religious) political leaders–who are celebrated by various church leaders–are even worse toxic leaders. And certain “respectable” economic leaders who support (and command) the political and “religious” leaders are the worst thieves and bullies of all.

    Only Jesus is the good shepherd (ruler). His true sheep know his voice and follow him.