For an assignment during my freshman year of college, I was required to watch a film called Babette’s Feast. I wasn’t happy about it—partly because it was a foreign film with subtitles (with nary a Leonardo DiCaprio to be found) and partly because I had to watch it in the library (which meant popcorn was out).
But somewhere before the final credits starting rolling, I got sucked into the story. There were no flashy special effects, and the plot was minimal. But I couldn’t help but get swept up by its undercurrent of grace—shocking, wasteful grace.
The movie is set on a remote island in Denmark, and the cast of characters consists of aging adherents of a strict religious sect. Their lives are sparse: they eat simple meals of fish and broth, and their days are marked by pious activities like caring for the poor and meeting to sing hymns and pray. There is no drinking, no dancing, no dating. No fun.
Babette is the loyal servant of two of the sisters who live on the island. No one knows much about her past, except that she misses her beloved homeland of France. Babette watches silently as the community begins to fracture, succumbing to petty squabbling and in-fighting. On an otherwise ordinary day she receives a letter from home and discovers she has won the lottery. Ten thousand francs—enough for her to go back to France and retire comfortably.
As the community prepares for a celebration honoring their founder, Babette makes one request: she’d like to prepare a feast for the celebration. The people are horrified—they never share meals at their gatherings. Much less French meals! What if the feast turns out to be of the devil and leads them into sin? But since it’s the only thing Babette has asked for in all her years there and they know she’ll be leaving soon, the members concede. Privately, however, they promise they won’t say a word about the meal.
The day of the celebration arrives, and Babette serves a five-course meal that would be beyond extravagant by any standards, let alone for sheltered island people whose diets formerly consisted of nothing but fish and broth. They have no idea what to make of the likes of gourmet turtle soup, caviar, Cornish hens, amaretto cake, fine French wine, and champagne.
True to their word, however, they say nothing about the food, even as their eyes widen in surprise and veiled delight. But something interesting happens as the evening progresses. As their mouths fill with bite after bite of each exquisite dish, old wounds start to dissipate. Bickering is gradually replaced with kind words and warmth.
When the meal is over, Babette splashes water on her face, exhausted but satisfied, seemingly oblivious to the lack of praise she received for her feast. The sisters address Babette sadly, knowing that now that the celebration is over, she’ll be heading back to her homeland.
“Oh, no,” Babette says. “I won’t be going back. I don’t have any money.”
The sisters look at each other, utterly baffled. Didn’t Babette just cash in the check for the 10,000 francs?
Gradually realization dawns. Babette spent all the money—every last penny—on the celebration feast. Ten thousand francs, wasted on people who didn’t know they were getting the finest meal by the finest chef Paris had ever boasted. Ten thousand francs, wasted on people who never even said thank-you.
It’s interesting to note that one of the common pictures God paints when depicting his goodness and favor is a feast. In the midst of the prophet Isaiah’s talk about God’s judgment, he describes this scene of a shared meal:
In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will spread a wonderful feast
for all the people of the world.
It will be a delicious banquet
with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat.
There he will remove the cloud of gloom,
the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.
I am not, after all, so different from the guests at Babette’s feast. By human standards, grace is wasted on the likes of me. My palate is so accustomed to blandness that I can’t grasp the extravagant gift I’ve been given—a gift that cost the giver everything. And even I could somehow comprehend the sacrifice, I certainly wouldn’t be able to express adequate appreciation.
But in the beautiful mystery of grace, God invites me to his feast anyway. No doubt it will be a delicious banquet. But even better than the menu will be the one who has prepared it with such love—and with the ultimate sacrifice.
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.