09 May 2008

Loving Jesus More than We Do

7th Week of Easter: Acts 25.13-21 and John 21. 15-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert
the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

“________, do you love Jesus more than the rest of us here?”*

How many times in the gospels does Jesus ignore a question asked of him and instead answer the question that should have been asked? Easily, most of the time. The few times he directly addresses the question put to him, he answers in a parable or turns the question around on the questioner and ask his own penetrating question! This shouldn’t surprise or confuse us given who Jesus really is, but it is nonetheless frustrating when we consider the tremendous faith required to believe what Jesus is teaching. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Jesus answered the questions we all have about life, death, heaven, and our salvation? Instead we get stories about mustard seeds, vines and branches, sheep and shepherds, mansions, rocks, houses built on sand, and a wayward son returning home to a grand welcome. This morning/evening, however, we read that Jesus decides to put a question to Peter: “Do you love me more than these [other disciples]?” Peter, thinking that this must a trick question or some sort of weird, last minute test of his faith, replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus, unsatisfied with the answer, puts the question to Peter two more times. Why does he do this? One possibility is that Peter, following his Master’s example, doesn’t answer the question!

The classical interpretation of this passage—that Jesus is portending Peter’s three-time denial in the Garden—is very likely the best interpretation of this scene. Jesus knows Peter’s heart but he also knows Peter’s weaknesses. To shore up his faith and his fortitude, Jesus gives Peter the chance to instill in his heart a last moment of intimacy between them, a moment that Peter will remember after the coming of the Spirit and call upon to invigorate his preaching-witness. Nothing wrong with that reading. Another interpretation holds that Jesus is questioning Peter and using Peter’s answer to place him in charge of the other disciples, making him the leader of the group based on his love for Christ. This recalls Jesus’ earlier question about his identity and Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus names Peter the Rock. Also, nothing wrong with that reading. However, when we look at how questions and answers are exchanged in the gospels, can we come to another reasonable conclusion?

Notice that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” “These” being the other disciples. Peter answers, “Yes, you know that I love you.” That doesn’t answer the question directly. Peter doesn’t say, “I love you more than the others do.” Maybe this is nit-picking, but given the earlier disputes about who takes precedence among the disciples, you would think that Peter would jump at the chance to take the more honorable place. He doesn’t. Instead, he gives Jesus a response to an unasked question. Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Jesus puts the question to him again and again. Finally, deeply distressed by the questioning, Peter answers, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Satisfied with this answer or perhaps sensing Peter’s anxiety, Jesus goes on to give Peter one of his famous, cryptic stories, concluding with “Follow me.” Even so, Peter never directly answers the question put to him: do you love Jesus more than we do, Peter?

Why does the man named “the Rock” by Jesus himself shy away from this question? What if I asked you now in front of everyone here, “Do you love Jesus more than the rest of us, ______?” What could you say? Yes? Maybe? I don’t know? You would likely shy away from any answer b/c any answer you would give would pick you out as either prideful or ignorant or boastful. You might also shy away from the question b/c any answer you would give would come with a potentially dreadful task, a commission based on that excessive love. If you said, Yes, we might say, “Good! Lead us to our martyrdom preaching the gospel.” If you say, No, we might say, “Where is your faith?” If you say, Maybe, we might say: “You don’t know how much you love Jesus?” Do you see Peter’s dilemma?

Jesus sees that same dilemma, so says in reply to Peter’s anxious answers: “Follow me.”

*I directed this question to members of the congregation.


  1. Hello Father Phillip.

    Thanks for posting your homily. I don't know why I never contemplated about that point before when Jesus asks "Do you love me more than these?" I've been churning over John 21 for a few years now.

    In the Greek, you'll see that Jesus is asking three different questions, while Peter is essentially giving the same answer three times.

    I think Peter is filled with self doubt. He does love Jesus, but his history does not completely affirm that. He was given the grace to say that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God. And yet, he boasted and failed to stand with Jesus at the time of His Passion.

    In John 20, Jesus breathes on the disciples, giving them the power of forgiveness. I think they need that forgiveness, in order to fully receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Although it's certainly possible that Jesus individually forgave each of the disciples personally, it makes sense to me that they would confess their sins to each other. It enhances the idea of community and brotherhood in the pre-Church (embryonic Church?).

    So if Peter and the disciples are forgiven before John 21, we see that the effects, or the wounds of sin still remain. It's possible that Peter no longer feels he's worthy of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, Peter retreats to the job he held before. He goes fishing.

    But Peter loves Jesus. When John nudges Peter on the boat, "It is the Lord," Peter can't wait for the boat to pull in to shore. He jumps off the boat, and wades to shore as fast as he can. But it's a conditional love filled with self doubt. Peter has the humility to acknowledge he is a sinner, but it impedes him from answering as Mary did, "I'm the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word."

    So Jesus asks Peter three questions: "Do you love (agapas) me more than these?" Jesus is asking, do you love me in a total self sacrificial way, more than these others? Peter has doubts, and he's not prepared to boast, "Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." Peter says that he loves the Lord at least as a brother.

    So Jesus brings it down a notch, "Do you love (agapas) me?" and Peter responds again, "Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you."

    Again, Jesus brings it down a notch, and this attacks Peter's self doubt directly, "Do you love (phileo) me?" This is extremely distressing for Peter. Is it possible that even still, Peter does not reach to the level of phileo love? "Yes Lord, you know all things, you know that I love (phileo) you."

    Jesus matches the three question/answer pairs with a command. "Feed my lambs," "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep." I think Jesus is confirming that the ministry of Peter as pope, the leader of the Apostles, still stands. But he goes further. He goes on to tell Peter, imperfect though he is, that he will have more than phileo love for the Lord, "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 John 21:19 goes on to explain: "He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, 'Follow me.'" Peter does follow Jesus with his martyrdom in Rome.


  2. Bob,.

    Thanks for the comment...what you propose here is what I call the "classical intepretation" in my homily. Always a good way to go!

    Fr. Philip, OP