Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
“________, 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.