Wednesday, February 11, 2015

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.”    JN 21:15-17

It's Greek To Me

     You’re probably familiar with the beautiful passage from John’s Gospel above.  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 that occasion he denied Jesus three times: here Jesus invites Peter three times to tell Him, face to face, that he loves Him.
    The first time I read this passage in the original Greek I was intrigued by the fact, which is not reflected in English translations, that two different words for “love” are used.  The first two times Jesus asks, “do you love me?” he say ἀγαπᾷς (agapais), and when Peter answers  “I love you” he says φιλῶ (philo).  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.  It seems that many others have had the same idea, because I soon learned that there has been quite a lot written on this topic (who knew?).  Scripture scholars warn us, however, not to make too much of the different verbs.  It appears that at the time John wrote his Gospel the two verbs were used more or less interchangeably, although φιλῶ was much more common.  John, the scholars tell us, was probably doing no more than making his language more interesting by avoiding redundancy.

More Than Words

     I’m not one to pick a fight with the experts on their own turf; on the other hand, 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.  In any case, even if we can’t find a Big Linguistic-Theological Significance here, it seems to me that John is nonetheless showing us something.  Here’s what he have in the passage: Jesus asks “do you love me?” using one verb (ἀγαπᾷς), Peter answers affirmatively using what appears to be a synonym (φιλῶ); then they repeat, each using the same separate verbs they used before; finally, as Peter grows visibly distressed by Jesus repeating the question (but knowing all too well why it needs repeating), the Lord asks a third time . . . only this time He uses Peter’s word, as if to say, “All right, Peter, you love me, but do you love me?”.   
     I think we can see in this a reflection of how Grace works in our life.  Christ comes to Peter, who does not at first recognize Him; after Peter realizes with whom he’s talking, Christ invites him to express his love, and in so doing repudiate his earlier sin; Peter is willing, but can’t quite bring himself to use the same word that Jesus uses, instead replying with a (possibly more humble) synonym; after the same thing happens the second time, Jesus finally moves a little closer, and when He asks him the third time he echoes Peter’s own word back to him.  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); He calls on us to act out the love we proclaim (audible confession, acts of mercy, evangelization). And He’s always willing to move a little closer, if it will bring us closer to Him.
     Next week begins the penitential season Lent, an invitation to repudiate our own sins and express our love for the Lord.  Christ is asking us, "Do you love Me?"  Will we answer, along with Peter, φιλῶ ?