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.
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.