Do You Love Me More Than These?
A Reflection on the Gospel of John 21:15-19 (26 May 2023)
“The cross is the gift God gives to his friends.” (St Philip Neri as quoted in Kreeft)
Internet Image from Pastor Tom
In the Gospel today, Jesus questions St Peter’s love in a very strange way,
"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" (John 21:15 NABRE)
The “more than these,” qualifier is important. You can almost imagine the Lord is lifting his arm as He asks the question to point out all that surrounded Peter, his friends, comforts, and even the sustenance, the breakfast they have just eaten. In other words, does your love for Me precede all worldly attachments. As St John Chrysostom expounds, Jesus is asking Peter to set all things aside for the love of Him to care for His Church. (Paraphrased from Chrysostom 2.2) Is your love strong enough for this? St Peter had certainly faltered in the past. The task is enormous! It is challenging! Yet, it is the single most important question for all the faithful.
St Peter’s three-fold, “yes” to Jesus’ question is one of complete commitment, not to a concept, but to his beloved. Look carefully at the original Greek language. Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” the first two times using the Greek word agapaō (ἀγαπάω) which means willing of the good of the other. It is a “willed” love. It is a logical love from the head. Peter’s response is that he loves the Lord using the Greek word, philĕō (φιλέω) for love. Different from agapaō, philĕō is a love that comes from tremendous affection, a love from the heart. In other words, Peter is declaring, “Lord you are my beloved, my everything”. Peter has fallen in love with Jesus. His love is more than a rational love built on proofs. It is a love that has its foundation in the heart. Jesus finally, in the third asking of, “do you love me?” (John 21:17 NABRE) also uses the philĕō form of the Greek word for “love”. In other words, “Simon, son of John, am I your beloved?” St Peter’s answer is an unreserved, “Yes!”
Like Peter, our love for the Lord must be from the heart, complete. More than just a willed love, a duty, Jesus must be our beloved, our everything. If we truly love the Lord, then we have relinquished attachment to everything else. When Jesus asks, “do you love me more than these”, our response must be; “Yes Lord, you are my beloved. You are my number one and there is no number two.” Do we fail? Yes! We are human. But we must remember always that we must strive to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. (Matthew 22:37) It must be more than a willed love. We must love God with all our being.
We are called to fall in love with Jesus. It is more than just accepting His teachings. Jesus asks St Peter three times for a declaration of love for Him. Three in Sacred Scripture is often meant to convey that God’s purposes are completed. For example, Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days until Jonah repents and aligns his will to God’s purpose (Jonah 2:10–11); Samuel is called three times before he understands and responds (1 Sam 3:8); Jesus prays three times in the Garden of Gethsemane in accepting the Cross (Matthew 26:4); and Jesus is in the tomb for three days before His glorious resurrection. God’s purpose is completed. In the Gospel today, Jesus also asks for a declaration of Peter’s love three times. Peter’s “yes” indicates that God’s will has been accomplished. Amid Jesus’s asking, His singular demand is to care for the Flock, His Church. That care must extend from more than duty, it is a result of love for Jesus. Jesus adds,
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." … And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:18, 19b NABRE)
Jesus is telling Peter, He is telling us, that in the path of holiness, moving from an immature to a mature faith, we will grasp the fact that our lives are not about us, but about our beloved.
There is Another who will tie us up and take us where we never imagined we could or would go; there is a Power that is operative in us and accompanies us whether we know it or not and that will accomplish what we, by our own power, could never accomplish. To allow ourselves to be tied up and taken, to surrender to the greater authority, is to walk the … most dramatic of the ways of holiness. (Barron 114)
Note that Jesus says to St Peter, “you will stretch out your hands.” Peter willingly stretches out His hands. For and in love, St Peter accepts the cross from His beloved. As St Philip Neri, whose memorial we celebrate today, tells us “The cross is the gift God gives to his friends.” Nothing for St Peter is more important.
Today the Lord is asking you and I; Do you love me from the heart? Are you willing to open yourself to fully love me, as your beloved, without reservation? If you love the Lord from the heart, everything else pales in significance. That being so, out of love, we have no option but to follow Him in feeding and tending His Church! Is your love strong enough? Do you love Him more than all these?
Bishop Barron, Robert. The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path. Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
Chrysostom St John. “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood.” Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues. Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. W. R. W. Stephens. Vol. 9. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889. 40. Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series.
Kreeft, Peter J. Your Questions, God’s Answers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994. Print.
New American Bible. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
Pastor Tom. “Do You Love Me More than These?” More than Useless, 27 Sept. 2018, morethanuseless.com/archives/2971.
This Scripture passage is so familiar to me that I take for granted, don't really think about it. Your explanation of the different words in Greek has really spoken to me and brought renewed life to the passage!
Really good, and timely! Thanks for providing this article. So is Peter's phelio a lower "form" of Love compared to the one Jesus is asking about (Agape)? Or is it just of a different character? To me a true, deep love from the heart seems HIGHER than a love from the head, but I thought Agape was supposed to be greater than phileo.