Feed My Sheep

In some previous posts (here, here and here), I touched on the unique charism associated with the primacy of Peter. My focus had been on his role related to the Sacraments and the integrity of the Gospel. Now, let's look at another NT text, which focuses on his third role, that of disciplinary primacy - a kind of leadership role. The narrative in John 21 begins with a charcoal fire:

9 When they [the Apostles] got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. (Jn 21:9-14)

Three things to notice; first is the meal of fish and the bread, reminding us how the Lord fed the multitude in John 6. As that chapter provided foundational Eucharistic doctrine, so we should have a Eucharistic mindset as we read this narrative in John 21. Second, note that Peter hauled 153 fish ashore. According to St. Jerome, at the time of Jesus, Greek zoologists believed there were 153 different kinds of fish in the world. Peter, that fisher of men, hauling this in his net prefigured the Church going out and bringing the whole world into the Church. The third point to notice is the charcoal fire, which John mentioned once before in Jn 18:18, in the context of Peter’s infamous three denials of Jesus. The Merciful One will now give Peter a threefold chance to recover his fidelity.

15 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."

16 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."

17 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)

There are curious terms used here. Let’s look at them. First is the word love. In the first and second question, John has Jesus using the Greek word, agapeo; meanwhile, Peter responds using the Greek word, phileo. In the third question, both Jesus and Peter use the word, phileo. Generally, agapeo is a deeper, more intense kind of love than phileo, which means the love of friendship. Some interpreters see here Jesus asking Peter for a deep love, but Peter, unable to love so intimately, replies with a milder form of love. Finally, Jesus meets Peter where he is and simplifies His request to mere phileo; Peter then grieves, realizing that Jesus sees he cannot muster up the kind of love the Lord requested.

Maybe more important is how Jesus phrases the first question: Do you love me more than these? This begs the question: these what? These fish? These nets? These other Apostles? A common understanding is that Jesus referred to the other Apostles, and this pointing back to a previous episode found in Matthew:

31 Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." 33 Peter declared to him, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." 34 Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." 35 Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you. (Mt 26:31-35)

Peter boasted that he alone would not betray Jesus – he was the most faithful of the Apostles! Yet he alone denied Jesus. So that he may atone for such arrogance, Jesus now asks him if he loved more than the others. Peter, humbled by his sin, could reply with a “yes.” But he would not admit a bold agapeo level of love; instead he humbly settled for a milder phileo kind of love.

Finally, we note Jesus’ directions to Peter: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Who are the lambs? Who are the sheep? A common understanding is that Peter’s fellow Apostles are the sheep, while the Father’s children (all Christians) are the lambs. Both are to be fed. As we saw earlier, we should read this with a Eucharistic mindset; Peter’s duty to feed us implies feeding us the Eucharist. He is the Apostle ultimately in charge of this duty. That he feeds the sheep, the other bishops, implies they should accept his role of primacy in the sacraments.

Tending is, however, a different direction, unrelated to feeding. A shepherd tends to his sheep when he protects them, keeping them in the herd. This is Peter’s role among the Apostles; it is the Pope’s role among the bishops. This is his disciplinary office: he is the leader of the other bishops. They must be submissive to his role as the chief steward. But note the context: a herd of sheep. The pope must keep the sheep (bishops) together as one herd. This is why we say the papacy is a sign of unity. His disciplinary role is to protect the “herd,” which in turn protects the Faith. History teaches us what happens when occasional bishops separate themselves from the pope. Likewise, history teaches us what happens when popes act beyond the limits of their office. In both cases, it is the Faith which suffers.

We can tie this episode back to the famous Petrine passage in Matthew 16 in an interesting way. John does not repeat Matthew’s story. Rather he briefly refers to it in Jn 1:

42 Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter ). (Jn 1:42)

Cephas is the Aramaic word for rock; John reminds us of the Matthean episode by this simple mention of Simon’s name change. As we saw elsewhere, Dr. Peter Ellis mapped out the complex chiastic parallelism of John’s Gospel. In that map, chapter 21 parallels chapter 1; the Matthean episode should, then, be part of our awareness as we read our Johannine text.