All Her Substance

She has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. (Mark 12:44)

If you are like me, Christ’s words here make you think of the first section of Pope Benedict’s encyclical on Christian hope. The poor woman at the Temple treasury gave her whole “substance.” In English, this word “substance” means a number of different things. The same is true of Latin and Greek.

The substance of one’s livelihood refers to one’s material means. In the first reading for Mass, we read about the widow who had been reduced to poverty by a drought. As we hear her explain to the prophet Elijah, she was a woman of very little “substance.”

When the prophet asked for food, she said, “How can I provide for you, and my son, and myself, when all I have is a handful of flour, and no hope of getting any more?”

But Elijah said: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is a substance.

Actually, Elijah spoke more precisely than that. He said, Just give me something to eat. I am a hungry prophet. Give me a cake. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Who said, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for?’

Right. St. Paul. The same apostle who also wrote: “Christ will appear a second time to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him” (Hebrews 9:28).

In his encyclical, our Holy Father posed the question: On what, exactly, does man live? What is the substance of human life?

Before we shout: Faith! Love! Jesus! to answer this question, let’s pause. Hungry Elijah will not let us “angel-ize” our answer. As the Fathers of Vatican II put it:

A man can scarcely arrive at the needed sense of responsibility unless his living conditions allow him to be conscious of his dignity and to rise to his destiny…Human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty. (Gaudium et Spes 31)

So Elijah asked for food. The woman said she lacked substance. He said, Woman, I feel you. I know you’ve got problems. So do I. But give me something to eat. I have been fasting for days, months, years. I have walked all over kingdom come–east, west, north, south. Just trying to serve this hardnosed God we have. Why do we have this drought in the first place? Because of the faithlessness of the king and the people. Listen, just give me some bread. We will talk about God in a minute.

The cave where Elijah fasted, now in a church in Haifa
Elijah: a hungry man, belly growling. He did not give the woman a sermon; he just demanded a cake.

The woman: also very practical, no nonsense. But did she respond to Elijah’s purely practical request with pure pragmatism of her own? Did she say, “Look, Israelite. I don’t know what kind of math you Jews practice, but here in Phoenicia 1 + 1 does not = 3. I do not have three cakes worth of substance in my flour jar?”

No, she did not refuse him. His request made no sense; it didn’t all add up. But she faithfully obeyed anyway. Faith literally became the substance of the cakes she proceeded to make over the course of the ensuing year.

Do miracles happen? Or can science explain everything? Is our substance made of molecules? Or do we need the science of the saints?

What if the woman had spiritualized everything and said to Elijah, “I wish you peace. Go your way in peace, stay warm and well fed?” What if she never handed over the cake? Would her praises be sung in the Scriptures then? Hardly.

On the other hand, down-to-earth as she was, her life had more substance that just the flour in the jar. Her faith reached out to something real, to a supernatural substance. She believed in God; she obeyed Him; she hoped in His providence.

And God took care of her. He took care of business. He acted.

What’s the greatest miracle? It is two-fold. One: The greatest miracle is that molecules even exist in such a way that we can understand them—that anything exists at all in such a way that we can understand. Why does 1 + 1 even = 2? Not because molecules in and of themselves make sense, but because God makes sense and makes everything He has made make sense. God, who makes sense, makes things that make sense. That is the most awesome of all miracles.

The second part of this great miracle is that God has gone so far as to make this much sense: He has allowed us to know the reason why. The reason why He has made everything that He has made. Why? He made it all for us. To help us get to heaven.

2 thoughts on “All Her Substance

  1. Father Mark,

    Elijah and Elisha: talk about your twenty-league boots. These two would bowl over modern-day man were they in front of us. Instead, it is only those who pry into scripture who realize that “larger than life” didn’t require a publicist to BE. They are, much as they were, figures that transcend the day-to-day, pedestrian life that most lead.

    If you add the dimension of “Israelite”, which leaps out of almost every page of the Bible, most literally in John 1:47, you begin to understand why God might have a special place in HIS (figurative) heart for this people. You would want to know people like this, no duplicity.

    But, maybe you do. Look about you at the best that this age has to offer. Then, compare it to the people in the Bible. It may be that they’re the same people. After all, who’s going to write a story about someone who was born just to fill a grave?

    And, now we get down to why God made us. We get to choose how we lead our lives, whether they write of us or not. The hungry Elijah later revivified the widow’s only son; and the cowardly, fleeing, Elijah had the wisdom to recognize God’s voice as he waited at the mouth of the cave. our lives may well be a series of such opportunities. When we meet HIM face-to-face we might hope that we recognized a few such opportunities, and conducted ourselves in accordance with HIS plan.

    In God we trust.



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