Jesus’ parables endure because they bring the gospel to life, giving principles a human face. Sometimes we find similarly powerful stories in unexpected places. “Babette’s Feast,” a short story by the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen, is one such modern parable. It shows, in the life of its title character, how God’s infinite grace may shine in the everyday.
The story introduces Babette to a quiet, declining Danish Christian community led by Martine and Philippa, the spinster daughters of its founder and pastor. The sisters honor their father’s life and legacy by making food for the indigent and caring for the lonely. They eat simply, dress plainly, and avoid physical and emotional excess.
When Babette arrives, looking “haggard and wild-eyed like a hunted animal,” the sisters take her on as cook and maid. She grows in grace, learns their humble ways, and serves the sisters and community with love, a “dark Martha in the house of their two fair Marys.”
Then a surprising event reverses Babette’s fortunes, and she asks to prepare a full-course French dinner in honor of the pastor’s 100th birthday—a meal such as no one in the community has ever tasted. Though they fear the extravagance, the sisters and the community agree.
When the day arrives, however, their fear leads the community’s members to vow to eat in silence. But Babette’s culinary artistry transforms the diners as they eat. They rejoice, and laugh, and right old wrongs, receiving grace they didn’t expect. Babette, once a cook in Paris’s finest restaurant, enjoys grace too. She is allowed to cook her best again, to do her “utmost,” which proves as much a gift as the lavish meal was to the community. After the meal, the sisters learn that Babette has spent all her fortune on the extravagant gift.
As a parable, “Babette’s Feast” illustrates the limitlessness of grace. We should look for it in the everyday, as Babette did in serving the sisters. But we should also look for it in moments of extraordinary beauty. God’s grace comes to us, after all, both in the grand cosmic wonder of the incarnation and in the simple joy of a meal shared with friends.
Illustration by Makers Co.