Do You Love Me?
John’s Gospel 21:1-19
Today’s gospel recounts a post resurrection apparition of Jesus to Peter and some of the disciples.
The disciples had left Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus and returned to the Sea of Tiberias (a late first Century title for Sea of Galilee or Kinneret) which lies about 70 miles north of Jerusalem. The disciples are gathered on the shore of the Sea when Peter decides to go fishing. The others join him. They fish all night without a catch. In the early dawn light, they see a man on the shore who offers the suggestion of casting their nets on the right side of the boat. When they did as he suggested, their nets were filled with fish. They then recognize Jesus as the man on the shore. Peter jumps in first to get to shore before the others. He is so anxious to see the Lord.
Jesus is cooking fish on a charcoal fire on the shore. The disciples bring the boat with the filled nets ashore. After enjoying a breakfast of fish and bread, Jesus addresses Peter three times, asking each time, “Do you love me? Jesus asking the same question three times must remind Peter of a short time earlier in Jerusalem in the courtyard of the high priest when there was another charcoal fire for people to warm themselves while waiting for the trial of Jesus. Peter standing near the fire was questioned three times by those in the courtyard if he was acquainted with Jesus. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in contrast with his threefold pledge of love in today’s gospel.
In Greek, which is the language of John’s gospel, the author uses two different words for love: agape and filia. Agape means unconditional love and filia is brotherly or sisterly love.
In Jesus’ first two interrogations, Jesus asks Peter if he has agape love for Jesus. But in the third questioning, Jesus asks Peter if he has filia love for Jesus. Peter’s replies are consistent. All three times Peter pledges filia love for Jesus, but he does not commit to agape.
We wonder why Jesus changes his question the third time, and why Peter was stubborn in his reply. Peter did not pledge agape love for Jesus when Jesus continued to press him. Perhaps, remembering his threefold denial of Jesus, Peter cannot bring himself to commit unconditional love for Jesus. We also wonder why Jesus was willing to accept filia.
How do we see ourselves in these encounters? What does Jesus ask of us? What kind of love do we have for Jesus?
Continuing to ponder the triple questioning by Jesus can lead us to the lives of Jesus and Peter in first century Palestine. They both grew up in traditional Jewish households, with Jewish customs. One of the daily Jewish prayers in the first century is the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 ” Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Deuteronomy continues 6:6-9, “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Both Jesus and Peter know the threefold ways of loving God commanded in the Shema of Deuteronomy, “with all your heart all you soul and all your strength.”
Is Jesus asking Peter for the love of heart, soul and strength, the love that is owed to God? Perhaps. Is Jesus asking this of us?
Sister Adele Gerlach, OP