“Christ’s Charge to Peter” by Raphael, 1515


Feed My Sheep 

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”    (John 21:15-17)


 It’s Greek To Me 

You’re probably familiar with the beautiful passage above, which is from the end of John’s Gospel.  As he sits with the Risen Christ at a charcoal fire on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Peter has the opportunity to redeem himself for what he did the last time we saw him at a charcoal fire.  On the night of Holy Thursday, when Our Lord had been arrested, the apostle had denied Jesus three times. Here, Jesus invites Peter three times to tell his Lord, face to face, that he loves Him.

St. John the Evangelist, from the St. Thomas altarpiece
Berruguete, Pedro (c.1450-1504) Convent of St. Tomas, Avila, Spain

    I wrote an earlier version of this post as one of my first excursions into bloggery.  There was something about the language in this passage that caught my attention: I was intrigued by the fact that the original Greek text uses two different words for “love.” I’m not familiar with any English translations that reflect this difference in wording.  The difference is pretty clear, however, in the original language. The first two times Jesus asks, “do you love me?” he uses one Greek verb for “love”: ἀγαπᾷς (agapais). When Peter answers  “I love you” he employs a different word, φιλῶ (philo); the third time Jesus switches to φιλῶ as well.   Now, knowing that, among Christians, the verb ἀγαπῶ came to mean all-embracing divine love, whereas φιλῶ referred to ordinary human affection, I thought I had stumbled onto Something Big. What was the deeper meaning of this passage?


 Love is Love 

As it happens, contrary to my dreams of achieving scholarly glory through my linguistic discovery, many others before me had also noticed the difference in the Greek verbs. In fact, I soon learned that quite a few commentators had previously written on this very topic (who would have guessed?).  I was disappointed to learn that the consensus of the scripture scholars was that we shouldn’t attach too much significance to the difference in the verbs.  It appears that at the time John wrote his Gospel Greek speakers used the two verbs more or less interchangeably. φιλῶ was much more common, but there was no substantial difference in meaning.  John, the scholars tell us, was probably doing no more than making his language more interesting by avoiding redundancy.

 More Than Words 

But is that really all there is to it? I’m not one to pick a fight with the experts on their own turf, but I can’t help but think the Evangelist has more on his plate here than simply avoiding redundancy.  After all, we know that John is a careful and subtle writer, and if he were that concerned with varying his vocabulary for purely stylistic reasons the prologue to his Gospel would read rather differently, wouldn’t it?  In any case, even if we can’t find a Big Linguistic/Theological Significance here, I can’t help but think that John is nonetheless using his selection of verbs to draw us deeper into the events of his Gospel.

    Let’s take another look at what’s happening in this passage. First of all, it immediately follows a passage where Peter is fishing. The apostle does not at first recognize the figure on the shore as Jesus.  When Peter, who has caught nothing, follows the unknown person’s advice, he immediately hauls in “a hundred and fifty-three [fish]; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.” (John 21:6)  It’s then that the Apostles, first John himself, then Peter, recognize Jesus.  They return to shore with their fish, where Jesus, who has built a charcoal fire, invites them to cook some of their catch.  This, the Evangelist tells us, “was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 21:14)

On the night of Holy Thursday, when Our Lord had been arrested, Peter denied Jesus three times . . .

“The Denial of St. Peter” by Caravaggio, 1610

 “Do You Love Me?” 

It’s after this meal that Jesus addresses Peter directly. He asks, “do you love (ἀγαπᾷς) me?”  Peter answers affirmatively using what appears to be a synonym, φιλῶ, after which Jesus says in reply, “feed my lambs.”  Jesus repeats his question using the same verb he used before, and Peter returns his prior response, to which Jesus answers, “Tend my sheep.” Finally, Peter grows visibly distressed by the repeated questioning. No doubt, he knows all too well why it needs repeating. Nonetheless, the Lord asks a third time . . . only this time He uses Peter’s preferred word, φιλεῖς,  as if to say, “All right, Peter, you love me, but do you love me?”   At this point, Peter replies “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus completes the series of questions by combining his two previous responses into one:  “Feed my sheep.”

  I look at this passage as a reflection of how Grace works in our life.  Just as Grace always starts with God, Christ comes to Peter, who does not at first recognize Him. After Peter realizes with whom he’s conversing, Christ invites him to express his love.  In so doing, he gives Peter an opportunity to repudiate his earlier sin.  Peter, the man Jesus named “The Rock,” is willing, but can’t quite bring himself to use the same word that Jesus uses.  Instead, he replies with a (possibly more humble) synonym.  After the same thing happens a second time Jesus moves a little closer. Then, He moves closer yet, echoing Peter’s own word back to him. He “meets him where he is”, as we like to say.  And every time Peter proclaims his love, Christ calls on him to share that love with others (“feed my sheep”).  


The Word Becomes Flesh 

     Just so, God is always the initiator, inviting us to share His Grace. He often comes to us in a tangible form (the Incarnation, the Eucharist, his ordained ministers acting In Persona Christi).  Our Creator calls on us to act out the love we proclaim.  Isn’t that the purpose of audible confession, acts of mercy, evangelization, living our lives so that we are that beacon on a hill, and so on? And He’s always willing to move a little closer, if it will bring us closer to Him . . . even to the point of becoming one of us, “taking the form of a slave” (Phillipians 2:7).

     Christ is always asking us, “Do you love Me?”  Can we answer, along with Peter, φιλῶ?

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