Last Sunday we reflected on Jesus allowing Thomas to rectify his lack of belief in the Lord’s resurrection and Thomas proclaiming his faith stating, “My Lord and my God.” Today we deal with Jesus asking Peter three times to profess his love of Jesus more than all other disciples to compensate for his thrice denial of Jesus at the residence of Annas. Peter had repented for his failure (Lk 22:62) and consoled himself, believing that the Lord who asked him to forgive seventy-seven times (Mt 18:21-22) had pardoned him. Jesus reassigned Peter the responsibility to lead the church using the analogy of feeding his sheep. Jesus also predicted the persecution and martyrdom that Peter would face. A Christian leader must love Jesus and lead a sacrificial life dedicated to the church. Let our service in the family, church, and community be based on love and compassion.
Loving and Feeding
(Jn 21:15) After they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (16) A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” (17) And a third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was saddened because Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus then said, “Feed my sheep. (18) Truly, I say to you, when you were young you used to fasten your own belt and walked where you liked. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will fasten a belt around you and lead you where you do not wish to go.” (19) Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter was to glorify God. And he added, “Follow me.”
According to the Evangelist John, Jesus first appeared to Mary of Magdala (Jn 20:11-18) and then to the disciples (Jn 20:19-23) on the same day of his resurrection. During his appearance to the disciples, he wished them peace, breathed on them giving the Holy Spirit, and commissioned them to continue his mission with the authority he shared to forgive and retain sins. However, Thomas missed this opportunity because he was not with the disciples at that first appearance. Jesus appeared to the disciples the next Sunday when Thomas was present and complied with his demands. Thomas professed his faith in Jesus stating, “My Lord and My God!” (Jn 20:28).
Though John concluded his gospel (Jn 20:30-31), he added another section (chapter 21) where he presented Jesus appearing to seven disciples during an unsuccessful fishing at the Sea of Tiberias. He helped them to get a tremendous catch and had breakfast with them (Jn 21:14). Afterwards, Jesus gave an opportunity for Peter to express his love and reinstated his leadership in the church God would establish on the day of Pentecost. John added this section later to communicate how Jesus reconfirmed the primacy of Peter even though he had failed in acknowledging his discipleship during the trial of Jesus.
(Jn 21:15) After they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
After they had finished breakfast
The breakfast Jesus had with his seven disciples comprised bread and cooked fish. He gave those like he shared bread and wine at the Last Supper. It convinced the disciples that their strange helper was the Risen Lord. Similar situation happened to the two disciples going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. “While he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Lk 24:30-31).
The disciples had a silent meal with Jesus because they did not dare to ask him any question. They were astounded at seeing the Risen Lord again. If there had been any relevant dialogue during the breakfast, the evangelist must have documented it.
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John”
Jesus broke the silence and focused on talking to Simon Peter. Jesus had renamed Simon as Peter meaning rock and promised him, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). However, Jesus addressed him after the post-resurrection appearance, “Simon, son of John” because Simon failed to be “rock” at the trial of Jesus at Annas’ palace.
“do you love me more than these?”
“More than these” could mean more than these disciples, the fishing tools like the boat and the net, or the 153 fish the disciples caught. Peter had already left his family and all worldly desires to follow Jesus and he resumed fishing one time only to provide temporary means of support for the apostles. So, the probable meaning is “do you love me more than these disciples love me” so Jesus could reinstate Peter as their leader.
Jesus included “more than these” for a specific reason. At the last supper, Jesus told the apostles, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken” (Mt 26:31). Peter’s reply was, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be” (Mt 26:33). Though Peter had the enthusiasm to cling firmly on to Jesus and even used his sword to prevent the arrest of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, he failed thrice at the courtyard of Annas. Hence, Jesus’ question was whether Peter was still passionate about Jesus more than the other disciples.
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Peter’s denial of Jesus was at a charcoal fire in the courtyard of Annas (Jn 18:18). Jesus made Peter to express his love for him thrice at a similar charcoal fire in the open space of the lake (Jn 21:9). Instead of giving a direct and strong expression of his love for Jesus more than others, Peter referred to Jesus’ awareness of his love. Peter might have felt that his words had failed the previous time. He did not wish to express his once broken promise again, though he wanted to keep it. So, his answer was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ understanding of his exclusive love towards Jesus.
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
God had considered Israel as his sheep and shepherded them through his representatives who were the leaders or shepherds in the community. Israel’s acknowledgement of the LORD as their shepherd is expressed in Psalm 95:7, “For he is our God, we are the people he shepherds, the sheep in his hands.”
However, some shepherds of Israel became self-centered and failed in their duties. God spoke to them through Ezekiel, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. They were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; over the entire surface of the earth my sheep were scattered. No one looked after them or searched for them” (Ezek 34:2-6).
Jesus came to the world in a similar situation when the scribes and the Pharisees were misguiding and exploiting the people. Matthew presents Jesus’ denunciation against them in chapter 23. Jesus acknowledged that they sit on the chair of Moses (v. 2). Since they do not practice what they teach, the disciples should not follow their example (v. 3). Unlike the scribes and the Pharisees who seek recognition and exalts themselves, the disciples should be servants to others (v. 11).
During his Galilean ministry, Jesus was moved with pity for the people “because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Since the shepherds of the time were not willing to accept him as the Messiah and change their leadership style, he reestablished Israel with the church. He selected and trained his disciples as new shepherds who should be faithful to their calls.
“Feed my lambs.”
Feed the lambs has a wider sense in Greek. The shepherd is not just providing food but also taking care of all their needs, like caring for them, guiding them to good pastors and still waters, guarding them from wild beasts and thieves. Jesus wanted Peter along with other apostles and their successors to minister the faithful with spiritual nourishments, guide them to the eternal glory of God, and protect them from the influences of Satan.
Feeding the lamb means nurturing with spiritual food. It also involves feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and educating the illiterate, as Jesus exemplified during his public ministry. For that reason, the Christian missionaries and pastors take care of the necessities of the people along with pastoral nourishment and guidance to the eternal glory through Jesus.
Peter had learned how to lead the Christian community following the model of Jesus, who used the example of a shepherd feeding the sheep. Later, Peter advised his fellow presbyters, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3).
(16) A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus’ demand from Peter after his denial of Jesus was not an expression of apology, but of love. Love can wipe away the mistakes done to the person. St. Paul wrote on love, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7). In the story of the Prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), the father did not let his son complete his words of repentance. Out of his love, the father ordered to celebrate the return of his lost son. The lack of love of the elder son towards his brother made him protest, even against his father.
Jesus and Peter repeated the question, answer, and commissioning. However, Jesus did not include the comparative expression, “more than these” in the second and third questions. It is understood from the context, and Jesus focused on his mutual relationship with Peter.
Repetition emphasizes the importance of the theme. Jesus used “amen amen, I say to you” at the beginning of many statements to express the truthfulness of what followed. In John’s gospel, Jesus used this doubled “Amen, Amen” 25 times, followed by important messages. Hence, Peter did not feel offended at repeating the question and answer. He might have been happy to hear Jesus repeating his unique pastoral role compared to the other apostles.
Through repetitive questioning, Jesus wanted to communicate to Peter and the other disciples present that unlike the shepherds of Israel, they must love Jesus more than anyone or anything. The leaders of the time had forsaken the LORD whom they represented in the community and exploited or neglected their sheep. Like Judas, their interest was deviated to selfish gains. Because of their unwillingness to reconcile with God and accept the message of the Messiah, Jesus introduced new shepherds who would love Jesus and serve God and His people through the church.
“Tend my sheep.”
My: With the expression “tend my sheep,” Jesus claims he is the owner of the church, like God was the owner of Israel His sheep. The shepherds are tending the sheepfold, the church, on behalf of Jesus. Hence, they will be answerable to the owner when he returns. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48).
Lamb / Sheep: In the first commissioning, Jesus used “Feed my lambs.” Whereas in the second time he said, “Tend my sheep.” Lamb is the offspring of the sheep. A female sheep is ewe, and a male sheep is ram. Lambs represent children who need faith formation and new converts in the church. Sheep represent all other Christians, male and female, who are adults in faith.
Feed / Tend: The lambs’ primary requirement is feeding. So, when Jesus said feed my lambs, Jesus asked Peter to educate the new converts who were young in their Christian faith. The church leaders need to teach them religion with special attention. Children and youth also need faith formation at their young age. That is why the church gives importance to catechism. Besides catechetical and sacramental feeding, the adults in faith and age need tending that implies guidance and governance.
(17) And a third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was saddened because Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus then said, “Feed my sheep.”
A third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
What must be the reason for the threefold question, answer, and assignment sessions between Jesus and Peter? Was it because Jesus was not satisfied with Peter’s response for the first two interrogations?
Number three in biblical numerology stands for completeness or perfection. Since Peter denied Jesus three times as a sign of his complete denial for the time being to save himself from arrest at the trial of Jesus, he had to profess his love for Jesus three times. Hence, Jesus asked the same question thrice and Peter answered for each question, followed by Jesus’ response of assigning him to feed the sheep. The repetition of the question three times reminded Peter of his denial of Jesus thrice, which was a painful remembrance for him. He realized the intention of Jesus for repeating the question and making him answer the same each time. He was saddened that the master kept repeating the question. However, Peter was also grateful to Jesus for giving him the opportunity to compensate for his mistake and putting trust in him.
Peter was saddened because Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Peter’s three replies have resemblance to David’s prayer to God, “What more can David say to you? You know your servant, Lord GOD!” (2 Sam 7:20). Peter, like David the king of Israel, acknowledged the omniscience of God. Peter’s love for Jesus was far beyond expression in words. As a human, he was weak, but committed to Jesus out of his conviction that he was the Messiah.
Jesus then said, “Feed my sheep.”
Since Jesus was going to depart to his Father, he needed a trustworthy leader to entrust his responsibility to work as his vicar or deputy. Jesus had observed the leadership quality of Peter, who had professed his faith in Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Though Peter had denied his discipleship thrice, it was for a temporary escape from an arrest, and he repented afterwards (Mt 26:75). Besides, that escape was a necessity for the continuity of the church leadership after Jesus.
Peter’s denial of Jesus did not diminish Peter’s love and faith in his master, and similarly Jesus’ love and confidence in Peter. However, Jesus wanted to take away Peter’s guilt feeling by expressing his love in Jesus. Jesus was sure of Peter’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He was confirming the leadership of Peter as the pastor in his physical absence in the world.
(18) “Truly, I say to you, when you were young you used to fasten your own belt and walked where you liked. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will fasten a belt around you and lead you where you do not wish to go.”
This verse could be a proverbial saying based on life experience. The freedom and independence of a young age will end once a person gets weak because of old age. Jesus used it to compare the future of Peter when he would start working as head of the church on the Day of Pentecost. Peter was later arrested and imprisoned as part of his persecution. His crucifixion is also implied in this description (v 19).
Along with elevating Peter as the shepherd, Jesus predicted the suffering he would undergo during his ministry. Jesus, the good shepherd who told about himself, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11) expected the same from Peter. Just like Jesus predicted his passion, death, and resurrection beforehand to the disciples, Jesus did the same regarding Peter, so he would not be disappointed when that would happen. During the last supper, Jesus told the disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, though you will follow later” (Jn 13:36). After his resurrection, Jesus told Peter that his time to follow the way of Jesus had arrived. Peter was going to fulfill his promise that he would dedicate his life for Jesus (Jn 13:37).
Peter, who once denied Jesus three times, never again did that. Instead, he boldly preached the gospel and endured persecutions he had to face until his crucifixion.
(19) Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter was to glorify God. And he added, “Follow me.”
Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter was to glorify God.
A Christian glorifies God through his or her suffering and death for the Kingdom of God. According to Peter, “whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name” (1 Pet 4:16). When Jesus heard Lazarus was ill, his response was, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn 11:4). The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus was for the salvation of humans and for the glory of God. Jesus prayed, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn 17:4-5). St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
With Peter’s ministry and death, he also glorified God, who exalted him in heaven. When Peter asked Jesus on behalf of the apostles, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:27-28). Jesus highlighted the reward for those who suffer for the kingdom, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:10-12).
According to tradition, Peter lived 34 more years and became a martyr in Rome, along with Paul. At Peter’s request expressing his unworthiness to be crucified like his master, the executors crucified him head down. Peter’s faith in Christ and fidelity to the church remained firm like a “rock” until his martyrdom. The evangelist presents the martyrdom of Peter not as a tragic end, but as a glorious event.
And he added, “Follow me.”
Jesus first called Peter while he was fishing with his brother Andrew at the Sea of Galilee. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, who were Peter’s partners in fishing and later became apostles of Jesus, were also present at the lakeside (Mt 4:18-22). Like Peter got his first call to follow Jesus at the lake, Jesus asked Peter again to follow him in a similar circumstance: after fishing, at the presence of the same fishermen, near the same location, and calling him with the same name, “Simon, son of John” (Jn 1:42). However, the post-resurrection call was after predicting the suffering and martyrdom of Peter. Jesus had told that his disciple, “must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow” him (Mt 16:24). Peter renounced all worldly ambitions and offered his life again for this call of discipleship with a better understanding of its consequences.