Text: Luke 14:1-14
You know those moments when you get really excited about an idea only to have your bubble burst when you share it with someone else. It’s usually a good friend, one who is always thinking of the practical aspects of life, who delivers the blow. They point out that one big detail that you overlooked. Well, I had one of those moments this week. For the past month, I have been trying to figure out how I want to celebrate my birthday this year given that it feels like a significant one. This year I turn 50. After mulling over all my options, I decided that what I would really like to do is have a dinner party in which I would invite several of my past mentors to – people who, early in my life, shaped me greatly. What I envisioned was an evening much like the one portrayed in the movie Babette’s Feast – one of my all time favorite films.
If you don’t know the movie, it is the story of two elderly and pious Christian sisters – Martine and Philippa – who live in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark. Their father was a pastor who founded his own Christian sect. With their father now dead, and the austere sect drawing no new converts, the aging sisters preside over a dwindling congregation of white-haired believers.
The story flashes back 49 years, showing the sisters in their youth. The beautiful girls have many suitors, but their father rejects them all, and indeed derides marriage. Each daughter, however, is courted by an impassioned suitor visiting Jutland—Martine by a charming young Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens, sent to stay with his aunt in Jutland for the summer to correct bad behavior. Philippa is pursued by a star baritone, Achille Papin, from the Paris opera, on hiatus to the silence of the coast.
The movie jumps 35 years later, when a woman named Babette Hersant appears at their door. She carries only a letter from Philippa’s former suitor, the singer Achille Papin, explaining that she is a refugee from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris, and recommending her as a housekeeper. The sisters take Babette in. As their cook for the next 14 years, she serves as a modest but benign figure that gradually eases their lives and the lives of many in the remote village. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris and her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s one-hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice; Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.
The sisters accept both Babette’s meal and her offer to pay for the creation of a “real French dinner.” Babette returns to Paris to arrange for supplies to be sent to Jutland. The ingredients are plentiful, sumptuous and exotic, and their arrival causes much discussion among the villagers. As the various never-before-seen ingredients arrive, and preparations commence, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but forgo speaking of any pleasure in it, (maybe they were Baptists) and to make no mention of the food during the dinner.
The final part of the film is the preparation and the serving of Babette’s banquet, lavishly deployed in the unadorned austerity of the sisters’ rustic home. Although the guests—the celebrants—refuse to comment on the earthly pleasure of their meal, Babette’s gifts breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table. The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris, and when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then tells them that dinner for 12 at the famous Café Anglais in France has a price of 10,000 francs. The movie comes to a close as Martine tearfully says to Babette, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, “an artist is never poor.”
For my 50th birthday, while I haven’t won the lottery and will not be serving an exotic French inspired meal, I had imagined a kind of Babette’s feast to which, as I said earlier, I would invite several people from my past who have been deeply important in shaping my life. After agonizing over this decision, and finally relieved in making it, I went from my kitchen table to my study at home and picked up my Bible to read the lectionary text for this week. Honestly, this is a true story. Here is what I read: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors [or the significant people who have shaped your life], in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”
If ever there was a “bubble being burst” moment, I was having it. For the next few minutes I simply sat in silence thinking, “What does it mean?” What is the message of Luke 14 that I am supposed to hear and understand? And that’s what I want to think about with you for just a moment.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus takes on the social code of his day. He lives in an honor-and-shame culture where status is pretty much everything, and one of the key places where status was displayed is mealtime. Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away. And those who weren’t invited at all correspondingly mattered not at all. Status was important and it could be fragile. To be invited to a better position at the table of an important host wasn’t simply an honor, it could also have tangible benefits to your business pursuits as well. Similarly, to be invited to a lower position could affect all dimensions of your life.
Jesus, therefore, is touching on matters of great importance as he makes two sets of interesting and inter-related comments. In the first he gives what seems to be good advice—don’t think too highly of yourself. Be modest. Better to start from a lower position and be invited higher than place yourself ahead of others and asked to move to a lower place.
The second commentary Jesus offers is not addressed to those attending a banquet but to those giving it, and it moves beyond good advice to something that might have sounded to his audience as fairly ridiculous: don’t invite those in a position to do something for you, but rather invite those who cannot give you anything in return.
In an honor-and-shame culture counting is everything. Status, favors, debts, honor—it’s all about counting and reckoning and one’s standing in the community. Inviting persons to a banquet—whether family, friends, or business associates—puts them in your debt and make a claim on them to return this favor to you. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world and meals are a great way to scratch someone’s back. Which is why Jesus’ “advice” probably sounded so ludicrous. Why on earth waste an opportunity for social commerce by inviting those who have nothing to give you, who can do nothing for you, and who typically mean nothing to you? It’s crazy. And yes, it is crazy by the world’s standards and values. But in Luke 14, Jesus calls us to a different set of values. The picture that Jesus paints in this parable is a picture of the way God wants us to treat each other. It is a picture of God’s kin-dom here on earth. It is a picture of a table where the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind—those who are typically excluded—are seated in the guest of honor seats. (David Lose, Textweek)
For me, there are two takeaways from this passage. First, there is the question of our dinner party theology. Such a theology will first need to consider the question: Who are we inviting to our banquet table? Whose faces do we not see when we gather around this table? It will ask the question: Where might we need to go extend an invitation to our feast? Moore Square? The Women’s Center next door? The men’s shelter on Wilmington Street? And those are not meant to be rhetorical questions. And, I do know the complications and implications of what I am suggesting. But the question Jesus asks is, “Who are you inviting to the table?”
While it may seem like it, I don’t believe that the point of Luke 14 is to say that friends or relatives or rich neighbors are not welcome around the table. Getting hung up on that part of the parable can only distract us from the real message. The point of Luke 14 is the message that ALL are welcome around the table. But it goes one step further. It suggests that everyone be invited. Luke 14 points to a dinner party theology that suggests that we are to go out of our way to make sure that the poor and the forgotten and the disenfranchised all have places of honor at our table.
While the first takeaway is focused outward, the second takeaway is focused inward. This aspect of a “dinner party theology” asks a different question. It asks: What of my own poverty do I need to bring to the table? What of my own blindness needs forgiveness and redeeming? Where am I crippled and lame and in need of healing. It has been said that “that which is not received, is not redeemed.
To have a seat at God’s banquet table—whether rich in wealth or poor in wealth, rich in status or poor in status, rich in spirit or poor in spirit—means that we are all equals. And all are guests of honor. That at God’s table we are redeemed as one humanity. That, my friends, is Jesus’ dinner party theology. And if we follow his theology, we may never be rich but we will never be poor.