Bottom line: We have natural and supernatural reasons to trust the certainty of the teachings in Luke's Gospel and the Bible.
When people pick up a Bible, they sometimes ask, "What if somebody just made up these stories? How do I know the Bible is true?" I'd like to give you some reasons this Sunday - or to be more exact, I'd like to explain the reasons St. Luke gives.* As you just heard, Luke tells us he wrote his Gospel so we could have "certainty of the teachings" received. How can St. Luke offer us such certainty?
Before giving St. Luke's reasons, I would like to clear up a common misunderstanding. Some people have the idea we can't trust the Bible because it has been translated and transcribed, over and over again, and must have lost something in all its transcriptions. Well, there is a science call "textual criticism" that identifies and removes transcription errors. Using textual criticism, scholars have compared hundreds of ancient manuscripts - and, because of that work, we have highly reliable texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
Luke, of course, did not need textual criticism. He wrote the original text! In his prologue today, he gives reasons for confidence in the truth of the teachings. The first reason, he says, is that he interviewed "eyewitnesses." And when he finally wrote down his Gospel, many (if not most) were still alive. If he did not get things right, he would have heard from them.
Perhaps a humorous comparison will help: Suppose I write an article for the Monroe Monitor about my high school days. In it, I state, "I went to Stanwood High from 1960 to 1964 - and during that time the Stanwood Spartans beat the Monroe Bearcats in every sport: football, basketball, baseball and track." Well, I think someone would object: "Wait a minute. I was here during those years. I don't remember that at all. In fact, my cousin Jim played for Monroe - and he tells a different story." Well, even though the events happened over four decades ago, plenty of people still remember those days. They could easily contradict my article - either by personal experience or by reliable reports from those who were there.
Something similar would have happened if Luke got his basic facts wrong. Luke doesn't write about events filed away in some archive. Christians constantly talked about Jesus' parables, his miracles and above all, his death on the cross - and what happened on the "third day." And being mainly Jews, they reflect on how Jesus' words and deeds related to the Hebrew Scriptures.**
So Luke gives two reasons for trusting his Gospel: He interviewed eyewitnesses and many of them were still alive. They formed part of a community that talked about Jesus' teaching and how to apply them to their lives.
There is a third reason to trust Luke's Gospel. He doesn't mention it directly in his prologue, but as you read the Gospel, it becomes clear that he did not whitewash. Think about it: Peter and the other apostles held positions of great respect, yet St. Luke openly describes their cowardice, rivalries and just plain stupidity. He even mentions things about Jesus that are puzzling, if not embarrassing: how the boy Jesus got lost for three days or how Jesus allowed himself to be baptized, as if he were one more sinner. Luke and the other Gospel writers knew they had nothing to hide, that they could only benefit by laying all the facts on the table.
We can, then, trust the Gospels on a very human level: They are based on eyewitness reports - and many were still alive: they formed part of a living community. And that community shows no interest in whitewashing. Those are three reasons to believe the Gospels: eyewitnesses, a living community and no whitewash, no spin.
Now, for us, we have a much greater guarantee: The Holy Spirit. St. Luke was not only a careful historian and investigative reporter; he had the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit, for sure, did not use him like a typewriter. Luke retains his own character. For example, he was a medical doctor and many passages show the trained eye of a healing professional. At times, he even used technical medical terms, like when he described Jesus bloody sweat in the Garden. The Holy Spirit took the man, Luke - with all his assets and liabilities - and used him write down those teachings necessary for our salvation.
From a faith viewpoint, the four Gospels have one author: the Holy Spirit. For that reason, we read the Gospels as a whole, together with the rest of the Bible - and our two thousand years of Sacred Tradition. For the Holy Spirit not only produced a book - he has guided a people.
During this past year I have been following a program to read the Bible, together with the Catechism, in a single year. I warmly recommend the program. You will be amazed at what you discover not only in the Bible, but also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The same Holy Spirit stands behind both documents.
Interestingly enough, St. Luke's Gospel gives great emphasis to the Holy spirit. We hear today about Jesus returning to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit," and opening a scroll of Isaiah that prophecies the Spirit coming upon the Anointed One - Jesus.
That same Spirit gives assurance of what Luke offers today - and throughout this liturgical year - "the certainty of the teachings" we have received.
So, let me sum up: Luke gives good reasons for trusting his Gospel (and by extension the Bible itself). He bases his Gospel on eyewitnesses, many of whom still form part of a vital community - a community that speaks plainly, with no spin, no whitewashing. And above all, we have the Holy Spirit: He guarantees the "certainty of the teachings."
*We are now in "Year C" - the final year of the Church's three-year cylce of Bible readings. In year A we read mainly from St. Matthew's Gospel; in Year B from St. Mark - with lengthy selections from St. John - and this year we focus on St, Luke. (During Lent and Easter of all three years we read most of St. John's Gospel.) Today we listen to St. Luke's opening verses - where he lays out his purpose. He explains that, after compiling eye-witness accounts, he decided to write an "orderly sequence" of the events regarding Jesus. His fundamental purpose, he says, is so we can have "certainty of the teachings" we have received.
**When the Church began receiving non-Jews ("Gentiles") she did not require circumcision or dietary laws, but the new Christians did have to learn the Hebrew Scriptures. Tradition has identified Luke as a Gentile, but one can argue he was a Jew.
General Intercessions for Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C (from Priests for Life)
From Archives (Homilies for Third Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish, Jan 24, 2010)
My bulletin column (Haiti collection results, March for Life, Postcard campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform)
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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