Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Whatever Kind of Love, Take Care of Each Other

Simon, do you agapao me more than these?
Yes, I phileo you.

Simon, do you agapao me?
Yes, I phileo you.

Simon, do you phileo me?
Yes, I phileo you.

This is a watered down version of the series of three questions Jesus asks Simon Peter in John 21:15-17. For each of the Greek words I’ve italicized, the NRSV translation is “love.”

So, at one time I thought that the point was in the repetition. Jesus asked three times to counteract the three denials, and Peter was hurt because Jesus had to ask him three times if he loved him, as if Jesus didn’t trust his first two answers. It was the number of times Jesus asked that was at the heart of the passage.

Then I learned Greek, and saw that the first two times Jesus asked, he used a different word than he did the third time. Jesus asked with “agapao the first two times, and “phileo” the second time. So I thought it was the fact that Jesus changed the meaning, from a self-sacrificial abiding love to more of a mutual friendship kind of love. And that is why Peter was hurt, because he realized he didn’t love Jesus the way Jesus wanted him to.

And then I read some commentaries, many of which say that John used the words agapao and phileo as synonyms throughout his Gospel, and that’s how they were being used here. So it was back to thinking that it was the number of times Jesus asked that hurt Peter, not the content of love.

And then I realized that it isn’t two different questions Jesus asks - it is three. The first question includes the phrase “more than these.” Jesus doesn’t just change the question between #2 and #3; he changes each question. The exegetical move I have made here is: it doesn’t matter how John uses the two different terms elsewhere. What matters is how he is using them here.

If I might paraphrase the three questions:
1) Do you have a selfless and abiding love for me more than you do for anyone or anything else?
          Simon: Jesus, you're like a brother to me!
2) Well, do you at least have a selfless and abiding love for me?
          Simon: Yeah, well, you're like a brother to me, man.
3) Okay, so do you love me like you would love a brother, then?
          Simon: Yep. I suppose so. 

See, I do not think we have to choose between Peter being hurt by the triple repetition and Peter being hurt by the changing questions. I think it is quite possible he is hurt by both. He is hurt because he realizes that he does not have the kind of love for Jesus that Jesus asks of him.

And whatever the question, whatever the response, Jesus’s comeback is, “Take care of people.” Feed them, tend them. Be a shepherd for the flock, lambs and sheep alike. Take care of people.

In other words, whatever your relationship with Jesus looks like, the corresponding call is going to be the same. We’re supposed to take care of each other. Whatever kind of love (or not) we have for Jesus.

Take care of each other.

1 comment:

bob said...

I always thought the point of the three questions was to allow Peter to atone for three denials.