My southern grandmother had a saying she used most every day: “Get your goat.” It was one of those wonderful phrases that could be employed in any number of relevant situations. If I was misbehaving or otherwise being a pest, she might say to me, “Boy, I’m gonna get your goat.” That was code-speak, you see, for some heavy discipline coming my way.
Or if my brother or sister was irritating me (I never irritated them), she would gently counsel, saying, “Don’t let them get your goat,” meaning, “Find a way to relax. Let it go. Don’t be so sensitive, angry, or let them get to you.”
And on Sundays, if the preacher sermonized passionately and sharply at the congregation, Grandmother would comment afterwards at lunch, “He really got our goat, didn’t he?” This usually meant he was preaching on a touchy subject or was especially lively.
So, if you “get someone’s goat” you disturb or unsettled them in some significant way. The origin of the phrase, apparently, comes from the horse-racing world of all things. I am told that goats were sometimes put in a race horse’s stall as a calming, settling influence, especially if said horse was nervous or high strung.
If you had money on a different number, or if you wanted a particular horse to run badly, then on the night before his race, you would sneakily send someone to “get his goat” out of the stall. This sabotage would upset, distract, and otherwise disquiet the horse for the night, causing him to run a bad race the following morning.
I don’t know if my grandmother knew the etymology behind the expression “get your goat,” probably not. But she certainly knew how to use the phrase, and it remains a picturesque, appropriate slogan for many situations, one I continue to use. Let me tell you about one of those situations.
A friend called me the other day, a friend who lives in a big Southern city with big Southern churches, upholding big Southern reputations. One of these churches he relates to in his work was experiencing a decline in attendance. It happens to the best, but this is a prestigious church, one that cannot afford to communicate anything that resembles a set-back or a lack of momentum.
So to disguise the falling numbers on the church’s television and web broadcasts, my friend learned that the church has invested thousands of dollars in pricey, black seat covers to cover the empty seats in the back of the auditorium.
See, simply roping off the empty rows would show a less than full sanctuary. But black seat covers won’t show up on camera, giving the appearance of the usual hunky-dory packed house. And the appearance of the usual hunky-dory packed house is what is required when one’s image is at stake.
Jesus didn’t say much about seat covers, but he did speak about seats. Specifically, he said to the religious frauds of his day, “You make a big show for everyone to see. You love the best and front seats in the meeting places. This makes you like an unmarked grave that people walk on without knowing it.”
Some of the good church people in Jesus’ day were terribly concerned with appearances, wanting to be seen and praised. So with these words Jesus seized hold of this most common hypocrisy of religion; this obsession with the outward show; the image-is-everything lie, where we put forward a smiling but insincere face, hiding the way things really are.
Jesus makes its clear that religious showmanship, seat covers included, rather than being something attractive, is actually murderous to our souls. When we perform for the audience, or the cameras for that matter, rather than live out a significant and substantial faith, no amount of black cover-ups can hide the hypocrisy.
Overt image-management is beyond the pale when it is performed by people whose primary symbol is a poor, bloodied, naked, man on a cross. “I was naked,” Jesus said, “and you bought me expensive seat covers.” It’s just goat-getting awful.