In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus the Good Shepherd feeds the shepherds he has appointed to feed his sheep. During this interaction we learn much about the role of Peter and his successors. As Jesus sits on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias [Galilee] he says, “Come, have breakfast” (Jn 21:12). Jesus then “took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner, the fish” (Jn 21:13). After breakfast Jesus turns to Peter.
John offers us many details that may seem superfluous to the meaning of the text. However, more often them not, these details help us to more clearly understand the truth of what is happening or being said.
One of the seemingly irrelevant details in this reading is that, when the Apostles “climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread” (Jn. 21:9). We might wonder why it matters that it was a charcoal fire. The importance of it lies in the fact that John has mentioned another charcoal fire.
After Jesus is arrested people begin to question Peter about whether he is a disciple of Jesus. “The maid who kept the door said to Peter, ‘Are you not one of this man’s disciples?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the servant and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself” (Jn 18:17-18). This is the first of Peter’s denials of Jesus. Peter will go on to deny Christ two more times (cf. Jn 18:25-27). All three denials took place by a charcoal fire.
Now, after the Resurrection, there is another charcoal fire. During this time Jesus addresses Peter and three times asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter then responds three times, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus, in his mercy, gives Peter a threefold chance to undo his threefold denial. However, we do know that by the third time Jesus addresses him “Peter was distressed [grieved] that Jesus had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn 21:17).
One of the things that we miss in the English translation of this passage has to do with the word “love.” In Greek there are three words for love. Each has its own particular meaning even though all of them must be translated with the one English word, “love.” This passage uses two of the three Greek words for love: “agape” and “phileo.” Here is how the dialogue would look translating literally from Greek:
Jesus: Simon…do you love (agape) me more than these?
Peter: Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Simon…do you…love (agape) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Simon…do you love (phileo) me?
Peter: [Grieved] “Lord…you know that I love (phileo) you.”
The interaction is intense because the first two times Jesus asks his question of Peter he uses the word “agape,” which means a self-sacrificial love. Peter, however, responds using the word “phileo,” which means brotherly love. The third time Jesus asks, the one that grieves Peter, he uses the word “phileo.” Peter responds once again with the word “phileo.”
We know from earlier in John’s Gospel that Peter overstates his willingness to follow Jesus. “Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times’” (Jn 14:36-38).
Peter claimed to have the self-sacrificial love of “agape,” yet he went on to deny Jesus three times. After all of these events, Peter has apparently wised up and is now a humbler man. Now, with a greater self-knowledge, he simply says that he loves Christ with no more than a brotherly love.
However, Jesus does go on to tell Peter that in the end Peter will have a chance to live up to his hasty words, “I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus says, “…When you are old, you will stretch out your hands...” John then tells us, “He said this signifying what kind of death he would glorify God” (Jn 21:18, 19). The early Church Father, Origen, says: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”
Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:11-18). Jesus now gives Peter this same role when he says to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”
In conclusion, I would like to quote of the words of Steve Ray. In his book, “St. John’s Gospel,” “The word feed…means literally ‘to feed’ and figuratively to teach and promote in every way the spiritual welfare of the members of the Church. The second word, tend…means literally to shepherd the sheep, and figuratively to govern or rule. Jesus appoints Peter the universal shepherd of his whole flock…The Good Shepherd appoints Peter to participate in his own authority as shepherd, to exercise delegated authority and leadership over the flock…When Jesus commands Peter to govern his sheep, he implicitly commands the sheep to submit to and obey the universal shepherd – Peter” (pp. 394-395).
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.