2 min 52 sec reading time
THE LAST SUPPER that Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover Seder. Though some contemporary New Testament scholars question this, the evidence of Matthew, Mark and Luke is compelling.
As an example, consider that all three synoptic gospels preserve an obscure Hebrew idiom found in ancient Rabbinic literature: “eat the Passover” (Mt 26:17; Mk 14:12; Lk 22:11), a shorthand way of referring to a Seder, including eating the Passover lamb. “And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer’” (Lk 22:14).
At that memorable meal, Jesus spoke words that have become institutionalized in Christian settings: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (Mt 26:26 KJV, itals original).
Three important questions can be asked about this passage: 1] What was the biblical basis for Jesus reciting a blessing before eating? 2] Why is the word it italicized in the original King James translation? 3] How might this influence the Christian custom of “blessing the food”?
FIRST, if we search Jesus’ Bible (the Hebrew scriptures) we find not a single command to give thanks before a meal. The closest parallel is found in Deuteronomy 8:10: “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Notice however that the command stipulates a blessing after the meal, not before – a custom still honored today by observant Jews, in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals).
In fact, the basis of Jesus’ blessing before the meal is not biblical but extra-biblical. He honors a tradition started by the Sages and preserved by the Pharisees. Their thinking was: If we are commanded to give thanks afterwards, let us go beyond the letter of the Law and in our gratitude also give thanks before a meal.
SECOND, notice that the blessing commanded is directed toward God and not the meal itself. This God-focus is preserved in the blessing before the meal as well: Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe… who brings forth bread from the earth.
The seventeenth-century English translators were not privy to first-century Jewish traditions. Drawing instead upon the sacramental traditions of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church before it, they assumed that Jesus took the bread and blessed it, and took the cup and blessed it.
The word it is italicized in Matthew 26:26 KJV because “it” is not in the original Greek but is an interpolation of the translators. Literally, “Jesus took bread and he blessed, he broke, and he distributed to the disciples.” The Greek text of this passage preserves the authentic Hebraic custom of our Lord – to bless or give thanks to the Lord for the food He has brought forth from the good earth.
We see this pattern paralleled in a number of NT passages. Acts 27:35 for instance: And when he had said this, [Paul] took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.
FINALLY, the Jewish perspective that informed the New Testament should guide us as well. When we say grace before a meal we are in fact following a Jewish tradition (even a Pharisaic one!) that was commended to us by Jesus of Nazareth. As in the best of Jewish traditions let us be God-minded and King-centered in all that we do. Indeed the Sages recommend finding at least one hundred occasions daily in which to bless God as Lord and King. This mindset is reflected in the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).
In our customary blessings before meals therefore let the focus be not on the provision but upon the Source. Let’s not “bless the food” but “bless the Lord” who supplies all our needs. Thereby we consecrate the meal and bring even mundane actions under the gracious sovereignty of the “King of the Universe.”