Goats Get a Bad Press

For Sunday, 22nd November, 2020

Mountain Goat - North Wales

There are few references to goats in the New Testament. The one which springs to mind is the one in Matthew’s gospel which is our lectionary reading for Sunday, November 22nd. It always strikes me as being a bit hard on goats to be equated with those who have shown no compassion for others and therefore to Jesus himself.

I suppose it should come as no surprise, therefore, that I can think of no hymns containing goats as a central motif. In fact the only songs I know which feature goats are the Lonely Goatherd puppet show song from the Sound of Music and a Welsh song, Oes Gafr Eto?, (Counting the Goats) which I once sang at an end of conference concert on the island of Bali! You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyCzacjMtls

It isn’t as though goats were not valued in ancient society. They were frequently referred to from Genesis to Deuteronomy as part of the flocks of sheep and goats as well as being used for weaving their hair into fabrics, cooking them to entertain guests and offering them as sacrifices.

Jenny and I were frequently provided with goat stew on our tour of Kenyan churches some years back and I know one of our ministerial team is fond of goat curry. Some farmers use a goat as the leader of their flocks of sheep. They are considered to be more intelligent than sheep and can be trained to respond to the farmers’ calls to feeding time and the sheep will follow them as the leader of the flock.

For all that, there is only one other memorable reference to goats in the Bible and it is one we still refer to when identifying people who have been seen as scapegoats even in modern times. The scapegoat appears in Leviticus and is the focal point of the ceremony of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat (1854)

Holman Hunt’s picture of the Scapegoat is an evocative rendering of the bleakness surrounding the goat selected by the people of Israel on which all of the people’s sins were symbolically placed before the poor creature was driven out into the wilderness. Hunt went to Palestine to research the setting for his work and pictures the goat amid the crusty saltiness of the Dead Sea with the mountains of Edom in the background.

The Old Testament passage for today, from Ezekiel, has an interesting depiction of sheep practising a bit of bullying – or even scapegoating? He details “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide”.

There have always been those who have been the butt of other people stronger or apparently superior to themselves. It could be suggested that it started in the Garden of Eden when Adam tried to dodge God’s anger by blaming his downfall on Eve. Sadly, women are still the main targets for their male partners’ vented frustration and anger as indicated by the rise in domestic violence during Lockdown.

Scapegoating has, over the centuries, targeted those of another tribe, caste, religion, colour, sexual orientation, football team. There have even been attempts to blame Covid-19 on the Chinese, the spread of it on students and young adults generally – and even Dominic Cummins.

Every culture and nationality has it’s pet scapegoats. The Irish are the butt of many jokes here in the UK. Some Germans see the Turks in a similar light. In my own childhood, we played cowboys and Indians in the street. The cowboys always won unless the great Apache chief, Geronimo, was playing! However, in the early fifties, Germans had become the post-war scapegoats of choice. And we still have examples of First Nation peoples being marginalised, not only the native Indians of America, but in Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

How often are immigrants blamed for stealing our jobs? Often jobs, such as fruit and vegetable picking, which are too much like hard work for an unemployed Briton. Black Lives Matter is evidence of the continuing putting down of those who are visibly different from white people and somehow seen as inferior. This month, we have remembered again the terrible scapegoating of Jewish people by Nazi Germany in the twentieth century.

The Walled Off Hotel by the wall surrounding Bethlehem

For me, one of the tragedies of the twenty first century is the scapegoating of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, with its Settlement programme destroying the homesteads of the native occupants and the erection of walls around towns like Bethlehem. I could go on, but we need to see the way out of such a negative mind-set by looking again at Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading.

'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Didn’t God intend all of us to be members of God’s family? If that is the case, what we do – or don’t do – to the oppressed in Gaza, the exiled Rohingya, the refugees in Calais and the homeless in Britain – is the measure of our true relationship with Jesus.

We are asked to see all of mankind as our neighbours, without prejudice and with bucketloads of compassion. Elsewhere Jesus said, ‘others will know you are my followers by your love for one another.' James echoed that sentiment in his letter, reminding his readers that you will be known by the fruits of your works as Christians. If this coming Christmas holds any hope of a new and better normal for 2021, it will be encompassed by the angels’ message of good news to all. Yes, all. So, let’s go and bear fruit – fruit that shall last, beyond a pandemic.

Here's Looking at You! Another Welsh Mountain Goat

Could be the only way the Wise Men will get in!

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