Almost everyone is familiar with the reality that there are several words in Greek for ‘love.’ Perhaps fewer are aware that in this famous passage, Jesus and Peter have their wires crossed – 2 out of 3 times, Jesus and Peter are using different words for ‘love.’
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you αγαπας me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I φιλο you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you αγαπας me?” He said to him, “Yes Lord; you know that I φιλο you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you φιλεις me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you φιλεις me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I φιλο you.” 18 Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
When I was younger I was taught at school and at Mass alike that the reason for the repeated question was in a certain way to ceremonially repair the relationship after Peter denied Christ three times. I’m sure that there is some truth to this; Augustine and Chrysostom both proffer this and their interpretation is not to be sniffed at! What I find so wonderful about Scripture is that there is such depth that can never truly be plumbed!! I find the teaching of the Fathers in this regard to be very beautiful, but I believe that the significance of this passage goes even deeper than this… there is so much to be drawn from it!
Consider the first time that the question is asked. Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him in the sense of αγαπη.The noun refers to a sort of self-sacrificing love for other that has later come to be associated with Christian love – this should give us a beginning. But it is only a beginning… you see, the sense of this word in verbal form equates to following through and proving or acting out one’s love. If the love concerned is of the self-sacrificing variety, then necessarily, proving that sort of love means to sacrifice oneself. Jesus didn’t just ask Peter if he loved Him, but rather if he loved Him in such a way that he would sacrifice himself to demonstrate that!!
Now let us examine Peter’s answer – he uses a completely different word!!
Peter uses another word for love – φιλο. Love in the φιλο sense refers to having a deep sense of feeling for someone as a friend. This is a wonderful thing – Peter feels a strong friendship for Christ. Yet this is not what Christ was asking! I find myself wondering if Christ in His human nature didn’t feel a twang of sorrow at this response.
At the same time, this was a truthful answer on Peter’s part. In that instant he had not been given whatever grace was required to give that genuine αγαπη love to which Christ was inviting him. And not only did he admit as much, but he also demonstrated by what he said that he knew Christ was already well aware of this fact! There is a frankness in Peter that I find refreshing, somehow.
Christ shows us the sort of friend and brother He is; He demonstrates how much He trusts Peter by giving to him the care of His lambs. Then, He Peter to rise to a higher love than which he was at that point capable by his own
strength… He asked Peter if he loved Him with an αγαπη love.
Peter’s response demonstrated that, even in the face of the trust that Christ had placed in him, he didn’t ‘get it’ and he again declared his friendship.
Christ’s third question of Peter is where He brings out the ‘big guns’. This third question is not a repeat of the previous two (unlike what English translations of the Bible lead us to believe.) Knowing, of course, that Peter is not yet ready for αγαπη love, Jesus asks Peter simply if he loves Him in a φιλο sense. The Scripture passage above tells us that Peter was grieved that Christ had asked him this. Many might suppose that this is because Jesus has just drilled him and nagged him as if He were having confidence issues or as if He didn’t trust what He heard the first time. That might be how we would respond if we were asked the same question three times in one sitting… we all know, though, that Christ had no reason for confidence issues, and we’ve just seen through Christ’s
entrusting of His flock to Peter that trust wasn’t an issue either.
I think the reason for Peter’s sorrow is the self-knowledge that came of Christ appearing to lower His expectations. Christ was obviously aware of Peter’s shortcomings, but Peter, who had been so ready to declare at the Last Supper that he would follow Jesus even to death (Mark 14:29) came to the realisation that although he loved Christ dearly as a friend, he was not yet able to love Him in that deep, self-sacrificing sense.
Peter, in response to this third question, declares the twofold truth that Jesus knows everything, and that He knows that Peter loves (φιλο) Him. I get a real sense of Peter longing to be able to give Christ the αγαπη love to which He was inviting him, but not being able to let go of whatever may have been holding him back.
The remarks with which Christ closes out this little encounter seem ominous, but really, they are a beautiful promise, a fulfilment of the promise of beatitude to all who seek righteousness (Matt 5:6)! Christ is telling Peter that he WILL be capable of αγαπη in the future and that he will bring glory to God – that he would be able to love the Lord in the way he longed to love Him.
FINALLY, now that Jesus has told Peter exactly what he’s in for… given him all the information he needs to know… He says “Follow me” – He renews the call and allows Peter to choose what He has just foretold.
Random aside: I find myself wondering if this isn’t the scriptural basis for the standard manner of progression through religious formation. One makes temporary profession and lives the life for a time, and then makes a final profession some years later. First profession is perhaps a symbolic response to the ‘follow me’ Jesus spoke at the nets; the final profession is that response that encompasses a readiness to die to oneself to follow the Lord, and may be seen as the response to the passage above.