How does God make a miracle? In the beginning, God spoke and created the miracle of life. In the gospels, Jesus spoke and healed the sick. In Acts, the Spirit of God descended in a mighty wind and spoke through the disciples in many different languages. In these and other instances, God performed a miracle with a divine word.
But sometimes God works a miracle through ordinary means, using the ordinary objects and everyday actions of human life. For example, when Jesus feeds the crowds, he uses the ordinary loaves and fish of a boy’s lunch. When he gives sight to a man born blind, he begins by spreading ordinary mud on the man’s eyes. In this story of a poor widow, God also uses ordinary objects with extraordinary results:
Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside. So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.” (2 Kings 4:1-7)
The word of the prophet Elisha may have set events in motion, but the rest was then left to the neighbors who lent their jars, to the children who carried them, to this unnamed woman who poured the oil. For this miracle, God used ordinary oil, ordinary household jars and ordinary people.
I sometimes wonder, if the woman had borrowed fewer vessels, would God have given her less oil? If the neighbors had refused to lend them, would God have still met her need? In this text, it seems that God chose to limit divine power and to work instead through human action and human compassion. Once there were no more empty vessels, there was also no more oil.
Today we too could use a miracle. As Elisha heard the cry of the prophet’s widow, so we also hear the cries of people in need. As the prophet’s widow suffered from poverty and an oppressive economic system, so people still endure similar trials today. People still go hungry. Poverty still threatens the well-being and freedom of many women and their families.
And so we might well ask, if God is a God of miracles, where is our miracle today? How can we believe in God’s mercy and miraculous power, when so many still suffer and even starve?
For some, such questions may make us suspicious of any talk of miracles. That’s just a story in the Bible, we might say. That kind of thing doesn’t happen today. Others of us might tend to re-interpret this story in more narrowly spiritual terms. God satisfies our spiritual hunger and thirst, we might say. When we are lonely and in need, God reaches out to touch us.
It’s true that God meets our inner and hidden needs with divine love and provision, but this story of the prophet’s widow seems to say something more: God meets our outward physical needs as well. Yes, the Merciful One met her spiritual needs — comforting her in her mourning and giving her strength to care for her children. And yes, her physical needs were met as well in a miraculous way! God intervened in the widow’s poverty-stricken situation and worked through her and others to provide.
Today we can also cooperate with God’s work in the world. We can share our resources with others, lend our vessels, carry them where they may be used. We can take what little we have and start pouring it out. Then perhaps God will use us to make a miracle.
Merciful and mighty God, grant us the courage to reach out, to share, to work together with you and others to relieve suffering and do good. Fill our empty vessels, multiply our meager resources, transform our ordinary actions with your extraordinary power. Amen.
Reflection/Writing Prompt: In what specific ways can you cooperate with God’s work in the world? How do you stand in the way of God’s work?
April Yamasaki is lead pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and the author of Sacred Pauses (Herald Press, 2013). She blogs at aprilyamasaki.com, where this post originally appeared.