By Jared St. Martin Brown
Every once in a while, I live through a parable.
It was my best friend’s wedding night. Albani and I had the awkward and intimate honor of going ahead of the bride and groom to light candles around their apartment. We had to create that magic, romantic atmosphere, and then get out before our friends arrived. We flew up three flights of stairs, lifted by the wonderful, simple wedding we’d just seen. The whole thing seemed like beautiful fiction: my best friend was marrying her best friend, and they would live right next door to us. And the wedding reception was a perfect party of close friends from around our small town, full of the kind of goodwill you can’t normally expect from a wedding. Everyone was happy to be alive and together. Easy joy. It was how you might imagine your first night in heaven.
I still remember the creaky steps and banisters of that old place. It was an attic apartment in one of the old Clarksburg houses, so everything was made of century-old solid oak. Box of matches in hand, we barged through the door. It was never locked because it was made of old-fashioned plate glass, and useless against intruders anyway. Down the hall we ran stopping to light a couple candles in the bedroom and kitchen. At the end of the hall was the ‘great-room’ of the place, the attic of the giant old house, where everything was made of hardwood and ornate in a way that only the wealthy can afford these days. To give you the idea, we referred to it as a “Hobbit Hole” because it looked so much like Bilbo’s home in the films. We always figured this had been a servant’s quarters in the early days of the house, supposing the family who’d built it could afford a live-in maid. As we drew closer to the room, we realized we were not alone in the house.
A pair of dirty work boots hung over the edge of the Victorian style couch. Someone was asleep, face down, and smelled like booze. Albani saw him before I did. “Jared it’s Dan.”
“What? Dan?” I shook his shoulder, and he started to stir. I barely recognized him without his glasses, but it was him. I panicked. My newlywed friends were going to come through the door any minute, and here was Dan crashed out drunk on the couch in their apartment. “Dan, you can’t sleep here tonight. You gotta get going!”
“What’s going on, man?” he said. He was pretty unsure of who I was. I didn’t know him very well. He was much closer to the groom.
“Dan, you know Jim? He got married today.”
“Old Jimmy? Old Jimmy got married? Tell him I said congratulations.”
“No, Dan. Jim’s coming here, right now… with his new wife. This is their house.” I picked up his glasses and his trucker hat from the floor. “Dan you can’t stay. They will be here in maybe five minutes.”
“Oh okay. I’m sorry. Tell Jimmy congratulations.”
Jim and Dan were pretty good friends. They were co-workers at the Mission. Jim had been working there as a Men’s Dorm Manager. Dan was one of the guys who had been a resident in the past, which means he’d been on the streets but had joined the program and had gotten cleaned up. At some point a paying position opened and they gave it to Dan. He was such a nice guy with an endearing personality and a good work ethic. Jim was quite fond of him. This is why he became especially worried when Dan, after years of being sober was about to make the long journey back to his old neighborhood in another town. Jim knew that sometimes old friends, old environments can restart old patterns. Sure enough, Dan fell off the wagon, quit showing up to work, and had basically disappeared. We were all concerned, but no one more than Jim.
“Dan, you walked here, right?” I said urgently. “You have to go the warm room at the Mission or something. They will be here any time now.”
Dan mumbled something. I don’t remember what it was. Slowly he staggered down the dark hallway, and somehow made his way down those creaky stairs without falling.
I didn’t have time to think about whether I’d done the right thing. That would all hit me later. For now I just knew that the most important thing was preparing for the bride and groom to come home. Soon enough they did… and they were just as elated as I’d hoped. Spirits were so high that I decided not to tell them that I’d just thrown someone out of their house. We bid them goodnight and shut the door behind us.
Right about the time I got to my car, a terrible thought overtook me. “Albani, I didn’t tell Jim what happened. Dan was really drunk. What if he comes back?” A minute later I was knocking on the door.
“What’s up?” Jim said.
“Jim… I didn’t want Lauren to know… but Dan was here. We found him drunk asleep on your couch… Just ten minutes ago. I want you know, because I don’t know where he went. You have to listen for someone trying to get in your door.”
Jim thanked me. I could tell he was frustrated. He loved Dan, but I knew he wanted to protect his wife and give her the happy wedding day she deserved. I went home that night, hoping for the best… That the newlyweds would be at peace, and that Dan would get to the Mission Warm Room safely. I don’t remember if I looked for him out on the street.
Dan didn’t come back that night, and I don’t know where he ended up. It was heavy on my heart. About a day or two later, I noticed the similarity between that experience and a couple parables of Jesus. The first was the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22. The royal father of the groom prepared a feast, but after having his invitations met with hostility by everyone on his original guest list, he opened the doors to anyone who would come, “good or evil.” The banquet hall was finally full, but one person at the party was not dressed in wedding clothes. The father of the groom ordered the servants to ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”
Until this happened, the parable had always seemed like pure allegory to me. I realize that people are thrown out of parties all the time, but the abrupt judgment against the fellow who hadn’t come dressed seemed too contrived. Jesus was just making a point, right? However, my expulsion of Dan into the night was pretty quick. I had just done it without giving too much thought.
The second parable also involves a wedding. People call it the Parable of the Ten Virgins and it’s in Matthew 25. A group of young women, sort of like bridesmaids, were supposed to be ready for the return of the groom, and being ready meant having a lamp in case he arrived at night. The guy was taking his sweet time, and all the virgins fell asleep. Suddenly, he shows up at midnight ready for his bride. Five of the virgins had brought lamp oil, but the other five had not. They didn’t even think to buy it until the wedding was upon them. Turns out, it was already too late. By the time they found some oil, they were shut out of the wedding feast. The five with oil were inside, probably sitting with the wedding party at that table that gets to eat cake first. In fact, the bridegroom claimed not to know them.
Again, we have someone not ready for the wedding. Jesus finishes the story with “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
So that night with Dan, I had played the servant in a wedding parable of my own. I threw someone out into the street and I shut the door on him. Why? The wedding night was upon us, and he wasn’t ready to be part of it.
If you know anything about Christianity, you’ve figured out that the bridegroom in those parables is Jesus returning for his bride, the church. He tells us that no one knows when that will be. It comes “like a thief in the night,” unexpectedly. Jesus says, even he himself doesn’t know the day. Only the Father knows. So what counts as not being ready?
A legalistic person will assume that Dan wasn’t ready because he was drunk, and being drunk is a sin. No. In fact, I think being drunk on the Day of the Lord won’t count against you. If things get as bad as they’re supposed to, a lot of people will turn to drinking. I imagine Christians world-wide will be caught in various embarrassing circumstances. In the two parables, the outcasts were unready in the same way. The wedding clothes and the lamp oil represent the same thing: The grace of Jesus. The only way to be prepared is accept Jesus’s work on the cross, to believe in his death and resurrection. No amount of being righteous can make that happen. Being sober at the time counts for nothing in that regard. Why didn’t the bridegroom know the five virgins? They weren’t filled with his Spirit prior to his arrival. They had no oil in their lamps, and therefore no light. Remember the spiritual, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning…” Why didn’t the kingly father like the wedding guest? He hadn’t put on the salvation of Jesus, which is sometimes referred to as “spotless” garments in songs or as “fine linen bright and pure” (Revelation 19:8). Again and again, Jesus illustrates that grace is all you have. It’s the only way to prepare.
Dan just wasn’t ready because the day had caught him unexpectedly. He was oblivious to the preparations and wedding plans that had occupied most of us for the weeks prior. Really, Dan could have crashed out drunk on Jim’s couch any night prior to the wedding. Like I said, Jim loved Dan, and he was worried about him. Any night prior he could have helped him. But the wedding night- that was the end of Jim’s bachelor days. He had a bride, and he couldn’t drop everything and go like he used to.
That’s the part that sticks in my mind. When Jesus comes for his bride, the time to get ready is over. We can’t change clothes, we can’t buy oil, we can’t get in.
The good news for Dan is that it was just an earthly wedding, and not the big one for all of the church. The darkness I’d had thrown him into wasn’t Hell. It was just Clarksburg. And Dan himself, even though he struggles with addiction, is a believer. Part of why he’d come to the Mission in the first place was to find help. He wanted to be sober, but as any recovering alcoholic knows, the struggle is never over. So even though Dan and I had played our roles that night, both of us have what we need to come to the real wedding. We’re the church, the bride of Christ. And both of us have time (at least a little) to learn to “keep watch.”
Sometimes, when I picture the Wedding of the Lamb from Revelation 19, I see myself hanging out Dan, Jim, Albani, and Lauren. We’re dressed in fine linen and having a drink.