English is a marvelously expressive language. It’s said to have twice as many words as either French or Spanish. Yet sometimes it fails us. We have only one word for love. The Greek, in which today’s Gospel passage was written, actually has three, and two of them are used in the exchange between Jesus and Peter. One of them, agapon, means selfless love, the seeking only of the good of the one loved – what Jesus had just manifested in his life, passion, and death. The other, philein, has a meaning closer to friendship. It’s mutual. Both the lover and the beloved get something out of it. We might have used “philein” if, back then, we wanted to say “I really like him or her . . .”
Let’s listen to the dialog anew, substituting “love” and “like” where the Greek has agapon and philein.
Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me more than these others do?” Peter has, of course, just a few days earlier protested that he would be the last to abandon Jesus, even if all the others deserted. Dreadfully ashamed because he had denied Jesus three times, he doesn’t even try to answer that part of the question. But he ducks the first part as well. He says “Lord you know that I like you.” Then Jesus rephrases the question, dropping the comparison with the other disciples. He said “Simon, do you love me?” Peter recognizes that if he says “love,” he’d be a fraud. So once again he replies “Yes Lord you know I like you.” And then a third time, Jesus asks Peter “Simon, do you like me?” Perhaps we could reread that as “Simon, do you really even like me?” The Gospel tells us that Peter was upset with that third question. It is easy to see why, once we catch the word change. With his first question Jesus challenged Peter’s claim to superior love, and with the second and third, his claim even to love at all.
With three simple questions Jesus strips away all of Peter’s defenses. Only then is Peter really able to receive the love that Jesus genuinely offers. This is manifested, in this passage, when, after each question, uncovering layers of self-delusion, Jesus nevertheless entrusts the care of others to Peter: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” God is willing to work with and through human imperfection.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes that all things
written in times past were written for our instruction. This episode is
not just an interesting and revealing vignette in Jesus’ or Peter’s biography.
It’s about us. Jesus entrusts the care of others to us – a care we can exercise
only after we have allowed our defenses to be stripped away – the defenses
we have erected to create who we think we are. Like Peter we come to realize
that we cannot love in the sense of agapon, except insofar as we
do so through his life in us.
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