Should we really bless the food?

How many times have you prayed or heard someone else pray something like this before eating a meal: “Lord, bless this food to the nourishing and strengthening of our bodies, Amen”? Now, I, for one, am encouraged whenever people care enough to pray before they eat, and by no means do I want to discourage the act of acknowledging the Great Provider whenever we gather around a table for a meal. However, do we ever stop to think about what we are actually praying when we bow our heads over the food?

The reality is that this simple prayer is the common default for so many of us because it is something of a tradition. T.S. Eliot once said, though, that “a tradition without intelligence is not worth having”, and the simple truth is that this particular tradition lacks the biblical intelligence to support it. Let me explain the essential problem with our traditional mealtime prayer.

In the New Testament there are actually two words that are used when Jesus prayed over a meal. The first is the Greek word eulogeo, from which we get our English word eulogy. The term means to “speak well of” or “praise”. The word occurs in Mark 6:41 which says, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish he (Jesus) looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (ESV).

Note that in the verse it says Jesus “said a blessing” before He broke the bread. In other words, Jesus was speaking well of or praising, but what exactly was He praising? Was Jesus speaking well of the food or of the Father? In the passage it seems obvious (“He looked up to heaven”) that He was not blessing the food but rather acknowledging His Father. Interestingly, the term eulogeo is also translated as “giving thanks”, so Jesus was therefore giving thanks not to the food but to His Father in heaven.

According to Jewish tradition, before every meal the faithful Jewish man or woman would offer this blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the world, who has caused bread to come forth out of the earth.” And, before consuming wine they would offer this similar blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the world, who has created the fruit of the vine.” So, Jesus’ thanksgiving or blessing would likely have been similar to this prayer, which is clearly not directed toward the food but toward the One who provided it.

The second word that was used when Jesus prayed over a meal is the Greek term eucharisteo, from which we get our English word eucharist. The term means to “be thankful” or “offer thanks”, and Jesus used this word at the last supper with his disciples. In Matthew 26:26-27 we read: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks (eulogeo) and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks (eucharisteo) and offered it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you'” (NIV).

The reality is that it was common for Jews to offer a blessing for each food served during a meal, and Jesus was likely offering the traditional blessings with the bread and wine. And notice that Jesus does not, in either passage, bless the food or wine. Rather Jesus, in both accounts, blesses or give thanks to His Father. So, the principle that we can lift from the biblical and historical evidence is that we should pray before our meals, but we should bless the Father when we do, not the food.

So, how did we Christians end up blessing the food instead of our Father anyway? For most of us it is simply a matter of ingrained tradition or habit, and we have never been educated on it or challenged to even think about the issue before. The confusion over this matter actually started with a mistranslation from Matthew 26:26 in the King James Version that unfortunately continues to make its way into many current translations of the Bible today.

In the KJV it reads “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples.” The problem with this translation is that the word “it” is actually not in the Greek manuscript. And, that is why it is italicized in the KJV. It does not say that Jesus blessed “it” anywhere but rather that He simply “blessed” or “gave thanks”. It really is amazing to think that this one tiny addition to the text has twisted the way millions of people pray before their meals into something that Jesus never intended at all.

When Jesus taught us to pray for our food, or anything else for that matter, He taught us to honor the Father first and foremost. His instructions to us in Matt. 6:9 were “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” so what Jesus modeled for us is that when we pray before a meal, it is essential that our prayers of thanks be God-centered rather than self-centered, or perhaps we should say food-centered.