The shepherd and flock imagery used in Scripture create a rich paradigm to consider servant leadership. Leadership isn't about gaining success on the backs of those you serve, but bending your back to serve those entrusted to your care. Dn. Henok Elias, host of the Tewahido Bible Study podcast, opens Ezekiel 34 where leaders are criticized for growing wealthy, fat, and clothed, on the backs of those they are supposed to shepherd.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Our co host, Fr. Timothy Lowe, former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, joins me today, as does our guest Deacon Henok Elias who serves at the Virgin Mary Ethiopian Church in Los Angeles. Deacon Henok also hosts the Tewahido Bible Study podcast on the Ephesus School Network. So hello, Fr. Timothy, and welcome, Dn. Henok.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:43
Thank you, thank you, Hollie. Dn. Henok, it's nice to see you again.
Dn. Henok Elias 0:46
Nice to see you all as well.
Hollie Benton 0:47
Dn Henok, I'm remembering the last time we worked together, it was the project on Orthodox Conversations on Racism. It was a six week study of St. Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was produced shortly after the murder of George Floyd. And we gathered Orthodox men and women, Caucasian and Americans of African descent from all walks of life, members of the clergy, different jurisdictions, a police officer, a nurse practitioner, former military, teacher, and we all committed to submitting to the letter of St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to process the racial tensions and the social unrest at that time in the summer of 2020. For our listeners who might be interested, videos of those recordings are on our YouTube channel, Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, and Deacon Henok, I'm just remembering how grateful I was for your study and delivery of Galatians chapter four.
Dn. Henok Elias 1:44
Thank you. Yes, I recall that very well, and have had conversations with some of the other participants that were there. And my big takeaway from all of that was the way in which we were not interested in simply asking and answering the questions that everyone does. But we were interested in redeeming, or at least attempting to redeem each eon and crooked generation that we are ourselves a part of. And so we used Galatians, as a text, as an interpretive lens of that 2020 year and everything that was going down at the time. I'm actually a middle school social studies teacher right now. And they are studying the spread of Christianity and its origin. And since it happens to be actually a Christian school, and in addition to a grade school, I took my liberties to actually look at the Galatians text again with them as well as Acts 15.
Hollie Benton 2:45
Oh, wow. Really wonderful. So I'm really thrilled to have you on today's podcast, and we're going to be digging into Ezekiel. Father Timothy, I'm not sure if you've had the opportunity to take Father Paul Tarazi's class on Ezekiel, but I have vivid memories from my time at seminary, taking the entire semester to study the book of the prophet Ezekiel, probably poured a few drops of blood, sweat and tears into a paper. Did you get to have that class?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:14
Yes, I actually had the chance to audit it later on much later, when I moved to the northeast, with his permission, I would sneak down and audit his class once a week. I did that for a couple of years. So yes, I managed to squeeze in Ezekiel, or he squeezed in Ezekiel during my time.
Hollie Benton 3:30
It is a great book. It's dense, very rich, I'm glad we'll be opening it together today, So Dn. Henok, would you like to lay out some context for our listeners before we read the passage from Ezekiel 34?
Dn. Henok Elias 3:43
Yes. So I can't say that I've examined the entire scroll of Ezekiel with as much care as it's due in the Biblical Hebrew. But hopefully before my last breath, or Adonai judges me, I'm able to do so. I could say that Fr. Paul Nadim Tarazi, although I didn't get to study with him, as you all did so directly, I did learn a little bit of Hebrew with him online. And I recall that he calls Ezekiel the Father of Scripture, and it always stuck with me. It's a theory that needs to be tested and tested time again. But I have found that there's some veracity there. And the background that I keep on my phone is actually a verse from Ezekiel, chapter 17. If I could bounce around a little bit, verse two. It's this famous line that it's often translated, with a couple of things missing, and it's something to the effect of produce a riddle and give a parable, O son of man or Ben Adam. And I always like looking at the Biblical Hebrew to see what if anything is missing. And in there, it says, chûd chiydäh ûm'shol mäshäl, which is using the same root word consonantal word which are important in Semitic tongues, for the noun and the verb. So whereas often English translations use a totally different word to present it to not sound obtuse, the Hebrew sounds something like riddle a riddle, and parable a parable. And I would say that along with the grand theme of shepherd-ism, which we'll see in Ezekiel, chapter 34 today, the scroll of Ezekiel is a lot about teaching the people of God, whoever they are, what the Lord is instructing them, through the usage of riddles and through the usage of parables. And by using the consonantal root word, in both verb and noun form back to back, it rhymes, as we say. I think it was attributed to Mark Twain, I'm not sure if he said it. But that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. And so by using the noun and the verb back and forth, it's not quite a direct repetition. But it does have a certain rhyme scheme to it, that calls a certain emphasis to the hearers' attention. And I think it is the theme or the motif of Ezekiel to use riddles and to use parables to teach the people of God.
Hollie Benton 6:15
So on the Doulos podcast, we're exploring servant leadership, we know with leadership comes great responsibility to serve. The metaphor of the shepherd and his flock is among the best to convey what it means to lead by serving, it's used in Scripture time and again, the shepherd cannot abuse his authority by profiting off the backs of those he is called to lead and to shepherd. So let's attend to these first few verses of Ezekiel 34. "The word of the Lord came to me, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God, shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding yourselves, should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fattening, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak, you have not strengthened, the sick, you have not healed, the crippled, you have not bound up, the strayed, you have not brought back, the lost, you have not sought, and with force and harshness, you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts." So Dn. Henok, we have a lot of stories about rebelling and escaping the clutches of a tyrant in our American identity stories. But here the result of a bad Shepherd, or of a tyrant, isn't just that the sheep are abused, sick and killed. But those who escaped the grip of a bad Shepherd, aren't free and independent as we would like to consider ourselves as free Americans. They're considered lost and vulnerable sheep without a shepherd. So I'm sure as readers, we're often tempted to identify with the hero of the story. In this case, do we see ourselves as the bad shepherd or as the weak sheep?
Dn. Henok Elias 8:09
Yeah, hopefully we see our own villainy as opposed to our own heroism. It is as we continue to read through at least this entire chapter of Ezekiel, clear that the hero is in fact, God, who is the only Shepherd. But as with some other biblical titles attributed to him, God of gods Lord of lords, King of kings, he is a Shepherd of shepherds. And so he has certain expectations for those who function as shepherds on earth, who are supposed to mirror, resemble, guide and strive and aim to be like our heavenly Shepherd, even though they will continually fall short of that. And yes, the villains here are wild beasts. You know, with all this talk of animals, someone could get confused. And so if I may lean on the Pauline interpretation, there's a famous passage in Corinthians and in Timothy, that is actually quoting Deuteronomy about not muzzling the oxen that treads the grain, and has one of these humorous lines. I know both of you find humor in Scripture, and I know our God is a God of humor, because the Psalms tell me so. But he says that, rhetorically, that this verse about oxen is not about oxen, but it's intended for humans. And the same way, you might read this about wild beasts and be picturing that the villains are some sort of unthinking animals. But as you mentioned, when we seek our own villainy in the text or what we might be culpable of viewing the text as a mirror, we might ask ourselves, if we are teachers, are we the false teachers? Because here, it's clearly talking about the false teachers that lead the sheep and the flock astray, that allow them to be lost, that allow them to be broken, that allow them to be sick, and that are worthy later in this text of destruction, and judgment, for growing fat, and strong and clothed on the back of the sheep of the Lord, or the flock of the Lord. So I think it's very important that whether someone is a patriarch, a bishop, or priest, a deacon, some sort of acolyte or altar server, podcaster, or even an older brother, older sister, whatever function of teacher they're functioning in, that they take great care, not to be the wild beasts, not to be the predatory animals. In fact, there was uncovered a number of years ago what they call one of the oldest Marian prayers, and I've seen this sort of Greek version that talks of seeking refuge in the Theotokos from dangers. The ge'ezis version that the Ethiopian Church and the Eritrean church have received, actually use this word from Ezekiel, the predatory beasts, or the wild animals. And it's funny that a lot of people, when they look at that rubric, they think of being in the wilderness and being attacked by a wildebeest or a lion or something like that. But the true danger is the danger of the false teacher. And so I think we should all attend to the correct teaching of our Lord. And to make sure that as much as possible, we are not tormenting and twisting it, because it's not our own fate that we're ruining, but the fate of the flock.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:58
Deacon Henok, because Ezekiel is addressing the shepherd, I agree with what you're saying is general application to anyone given responsibility over other humans, and not just in a spiritual context. But as you've mentioned, teaching anybody that has been given responsibility or oversight, but he's also really hitting hard on, as you say, the teachers and leaders of Israel starting with obviously kingly and religious leaders and the scope of their task of responsibility. And that what is described here is quite beautiful, but it's ultimately the depth of their failure, and there is no doubt that the suffering caused by misguided leadership and shepherd as opposed to tyrant despots, someone who's dominating. Is there anything you'd like to say or focus as it relates to every facet of our life because we're all under someone, and we have all suffered. So that's why, Are we the victim? Are we the bad shepherd? And the answer is, of course, we're both. To be able to articulate that and understand it is quite essential for both mental and physical and spiritual well being.
Dn. Henok Elias 13:05
Absolutely. And, as always mentioned in the Ephesus School Network, we're not talking about the shepherds of Ireland, nor the shepherds of Ethiopia, nor the shepherds of Nepal, but the shepherds of the Syrian desert. And so it's important to know that that particular Shepherd isn't stationary, it's moving around in the wilderness, or in the desert, and always standing in the front. When we understand these texts, we understand that it comes to the highest levels of leadership. First, there's no doubt about that. And insofar as we have any capacity, to follow leaders, who are following the Good Shepherd who is above, the Good Shepherd of Zion, or the heavenly Good Shepherd, we need to build up our own discernment, as you say, to avoid abuse as victims, but then also to see the other sheep and flock that may be behind us as well, and may be led astray in following this particular leader. So there's a discernment in leadership of other people, but also a discernment in being led. And that discernment has to itself be based upon scripture.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:26
I remember one time I was asked by a bishop to go with him to visit a small remote Christian village, small Christian village in Palestine, the West Bank, it was a drive and it was difficult driving, you have to go through checkpoints. And people were excited because the bishop was coming. He was giving them attention out of his own and it wasn't technically his diocese, per se, but he was high up in the administrative structure of the Greek patriarchate. We get there. People gather around the car, and then they say, there's a family you need to visit now. And he said, Okay, and they happen to be a Muslim family. Tragically, their son had just been killed in a skirmish with Israeli soldiers. It was during Ramadan. We went to this house. And the grief was so heavy and it was wordless. There was nothing to say or do. The village had a religious leader, a shepherd, honoring them coming. And the first thing was, you have to just sit and be with this family. We all spoke enough Arabic in the community, there was nothing to say. It was just willingness to come and sit. And it was Ramadan, so they couldn't offer us any hospitality, even the smallest action, and a structure that understands shepherd and sheep was unimaginably grateful for just the time of an Orthodox Bishop went to a Muslim house. And they could be comforted by his presence because of his position, his authority. And as you can see, I'm telling the story, because it still affects me today as an example, of compassion and willingness and to just be with those in need.
Dn. Henok Elias 16:04
Yeah, that's powerful. And it reminds me that we make these distinctions in English, when you say, being seated, and you talk about the authority of the person, there's so much inferential language in the Near East. And it reminds me that in English, we want to distinguish between sitting down and being enthroned. But in the biblical languages, it's the same word, to be seated is to be enthroned. And we forget about this in the society that we live in. Except for several years ago, when I worked as a mediator, I was in a courthouse. And I saw vividly every day, the power of everyone having to rise when the judge entered, and everyone only being able to sit down once the judge sat. So the story that you tell of this bishop, using their authority to sit down, can also be known as using their authority to be enthroned next to these people who are sorrowful, and being the relief to their sorrows in that moment, through silence,
Hollie Benton 17:18
Dn. Henok, thank you so much. We've just scratched the tip of the iceberg here with Ezekiel. And there's so much more here and we'll have to have you on again sometime soon. There's a lot to unpack and uncover. The rich tradition from what you come as well as the biblical texts that we share, that we endeavor to submit to, to have it be seated among us. Thank you so much.
Dn. Henok Elias 17:44
Thank you for hosting me.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:45
Dn. Henok, good to see you, truly.
Dn. Henok Elias 17:48
Good to see you both as well.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai