I’m an unrepentant lover of good food. There is nothing better than a pungent combination of spices and the beautiful color of fresh produce to enliven the senses and transport you away from a busy stressful day. More recently, I’ve taken this appreciation to the next level, cooking meals from scratch for guests, and I’ve found that it can be quite fun to make a full day of it. This usually starts with a morning cup of coffee, reading through cookbooks while trying to think of how best to accommodate the tastes of my guests. Then I walk up the hill to pull together as many of the ingredients as I can for the meal at a Saturday farmer’s market. In years past, we’ve enjoyed growing our own ingredients fresh in a garden, taking advantage of the opportunity to grow vegetables that are cheaper, tastier, more fun, and far more socially responsible. For larger meals my wife and I have also discovered that it can be quite fun to plan out seating arrangements, placing complementary personalities next to one another and bringing together friends that we know will enjoy one another’s company. This all culminates, of course, in the meal itself, and I can recall several that stick in my mind as a transcendent moment of bliss. Just the right combination of people, place, conversation, and flavors, can really create a permanently lasting memory.
All of this experience flows into my appreciation of the practice of hospitality, which can be as enlivening and satisfying for hosts as it is for guests. But one element of hospitality is a challenge to get used to: its gratuitous nature. I come from frugal roots, and the idea of buying the more expensive of several options (i.e. better ingredients) much less being “extravagant” runs against my nature.
Of great help for me in getting over these less hospitable reflexes was the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast,” based on the story by Isak Dinesen. In it, Babette, a French refugee (and as we come to discover later – a gourmet French chef) arrives in a small Dutch Protestant community looking to escape the revolutionary violence in France and find work as a housekeeper. Some years later she wins the lottery, and much to the surprise of her employers, rather than return home with the money, she asks if she can cook them – now her closest friends – a “real French dinner.” Concerned as Babette returns with a wide variety of exotic and expensive ingredients that an endorsement of such luxury will be unrighteous, the sisters agree with the other invited guests that they will take no pleasure in the meal.
Yet one surprise guest, a general from the Queen’s court, is unaware of their plans and cannot restrain his delight over the course of the meal. His enthusiasm for the banquet is so eloquent that by dessert the meal becomes the site of a remarkable transformation. Long-held resentments and arguments among the diners begin to dissolve and former enemies make peace as their dining experience elevates everyone. These Dutch protestants are reminded that Jesus was the ultimate lover of gratuitous hospitality over good food. A blissful meal serves as a reminder that he extends the ultimate invitation.
In fact, my favourite of Jesus’ meals happens after he is resurrected from the dead. The disciples are heartbroken upon Jesus’ death, and they go out fishing together. After a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus stands on the beach and shouts for them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. They are so overwhelmed with the net now full of fish that Peter jumps into the sea and swims ashore, while the others gather the fish and paddle the boat back in. When they land, they find that Jesus has already prepared a place for them to have a meal together, and they have breakfast together (John 21:15).
I’m particularly fond of preparing breakfast for guests, and so I can appreciate all the attention that went into Jesus’ greeting of Peter and the other disciples. He gathered driftwood to make a fire to cook the fish (which he knew would be on the way), brought fresh bread as a side, and perhaps rolled up some logs, or laid out blankets for them all to sit on. He prepared a space, and then invited them to eat with him.
Jesus’ breakfast, though simple, is as gratuitous as Babette’s feast. He may have dazzled his guests with a net full of fish rather than with the intricacies of French cooking, yet his’ is also a free hospitality. His meal around a charcoal fire was rustic and unadorned, but it was gratuitous nonetheless. And it is here that the challenge of hospitality arrives bigger for the guests than for the hosts, because this gift is freely offered, yet must be received.