It's common knowledge that the first time we meet Saul, later to be named Paul, in Scripture, most of us miss him. It's not until he reminds us that he was there at the stoning of Stephen that we flip back a few pages and realize that yes, he was. Saul was the one guarding the coats of the men who had stripped them off to pick up rocks.
Which raises an important point.
If the Pharisees and leaders in religious law were really the pillars of society that they thought they were, why did anyone have to guard their coats? If everyone loved them and was thankful for their service and their teaching and had true respect for their authority and wisdom, why was there a threat that as soon as they made themselves vulnerable, the people would take advantage of that?
Perhaps their coats meant something special. Perhaps the coat of the Pharisee was an external marker of his status in society, and what they were really protecting against was imposters potentially getting their hands on this well-known symbol of awesomeness and pretending to be more authoritative than they were. But if that's the case, then it raises the question of why the Pharisee would remove his coat of honor and authority to exercise his judgment on the people in the first place. Did he not want to tarnish his public appearance by wearing his coat during a stoning? That sounds complicated. (Although, if we're being honest, no one's saying the Pharisees were not a complicated bunch. Just look at how they imposed their rules of everyone but themselves.)
We know that the Pharisees loved to wear long tassels on their coats to show their status in society. Perhaps they were afraid that someone would steal their coats, remove their tassels, or at the very least expose them for the kind of flimsy, shoddy add-ons that they actually were. Or maybe someone would pick up a coat and discover there was nothing so special about the tassels after all.
Or maybe someone just wanted a coat.
The point is that these were men in an elevated status in society, by their own doing. They had made themselves the authorities on religious life, which was to say - all of life, and they set the tone for everyone else. They set the pace. They set the rules. They reigned from their place of authority, self-imposed - and the made it a point to make sure that everyone knew that they were in charge. They were above reproach. No one could question the Pharisees. Just look at what was happening to Stephen in this very moment because he spoke boldly against the kind of teaching they espoused. He was a threat to them, and threats to them must be squashed. Yes, the Pharisees ruled with an iron thumb, squishing the people like tiny bugs under the mass of their status.
And yet, the people were not so afraid of them that personal theft wasn't a real possibility even while the Pharisees were exercising their authority and stoning someone to death for crossing them. Even while they were securing their position by asserting their power and absolute dominance, they were afraid that something about them was legitimately vulnerable to the people they claimed to rule, so much so that they had to have someone guard their coats while they stoned a Christian to death.
Imagine if they had any real authority.
No, really. Imagine if their authority came from the people themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees were known for their generous teaching, for their grace and their mercy. Imagine if there was any real love between the people and these religious experts. Imagine if they had invested their lives in ministering to the people out of their understanding, rather than trying to dominate them to secure power for themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees had spent their lives building a legacy of good instead of fear. Imagine if they were a group of men so honestly respected that they could leave their coats lying around without worrying that someone would take them.
Imagine if they were the kind of guys who didn't have to be afraid of a little vulnerability.
This changes everything. For them, and for us. Because we're the kind of people always trying to secure our legacy, always trying to build our influence, always trying to assert our authority or hold onto our power. The world tells us we're supposed to be this way. But ask anyone who's "made it" and there's a very real difference between having the kind of power that cannot tolerate vulnerability and having a soft spot in the hearts of the people. There's a very real difference between having a bunch of persons who are impressed by who you are and having persons who truly value who you are. There's a difference between a legacy built on power and fear and intimidation and false authority and a legacy built on love.
A legacy built on love means we don't have to worry about taking off our coats.
So that's really the question for all of us, the question we ought to be thinking about when we read this story of the stoning of Stephen. What happens when we take off our coats? Do we need someone to guard them? If so, perhaps we're not getting things as right as we think we are. And maybe we need to change our ways.
As Christians with the confident assurance of grace, we should never have to be afraid of a little vulnerability. We should never have to guard our coats.