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. Amen, amen, 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.” This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21: 17-19
When we are infants and young children, we see in the gaze of our mother and hear in the words of others that they love us. Our very survival depends on the fact that they will take care of us. That experience and that need always constitute for us a significant aspect of what we think of and mean as love. It is delight, and bonding, and a desire and hope that our need to be taken care of will be fulfilled.
To be sure all of this is an aspect of love. Yet, love is clearly also much more than this. When the disciples say to Jesus that they will take care and never allow what he foretells to happen to him, he says to them: “Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8:33) Jesus tells the disciples to “get behind” or “to follow” him in their own lives and deaths. They have much more to learn about love from him.
In today’s familiar gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times, an allusion to Peter’s three denials of him, if Peter loves him. Peter manifests the essence of his and our humanity when he says to Jesus, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” Human beings never love perfectly. Despite our desire to love, we, like Peter, will fail often, perhaps as often as we succeed in loving. Yet, Peter, knowing the Risen Jesus knows the human heart and, specifically, his own heart, can say to Jesus that, despite his denials, he does love him. There is, in true love, a commitment of heart that will sustain the effort even in the face of multiple failings and betrayals. On the night before Jesus’ death, Peter’s love for Jesus was as yet unable to overcome his love of his own life, his need to survive. Jesus says to Peter that although “when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would,” that the will grow in love to the point where “another will gird you and take you where you do not wish to go.” He will come to the point where his love for Jesus will supersede that very basic sense of love based on need which we have from our very first breath.
The response of Jesus to Peter’s declaration of love is that Peter is to feed Jesus’ lambs and Jesus’ sheep. Love for Jesus is shown by our tending and caring for the sheep. St. John of the Cross says that “In the evening of life we shall be examined in love.” To love, says Jesus to Peter, is to feed the lambs and the sheep. To examine ourselves in love at the end of each day, we might ask of ourselves if we have fed those given to us the past day. In the course of an ordinary day there are always several, near and far, whom we are asked to feed in the ways that are given to us to do so. We may well encounter people face to face or at a distance who are physically hungry and need our assistance to get food. There may be those who hunger for a bit of our time and attention. There are others who hunger for healing of body and mind and who need from us our total effort to develop and deepen the gifts of healing and teaching we have been given so we can truly feed that hunger.
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had told his disciples that “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11). The love of Jesus lived out in feeding his lambs and his sheep will, finally, cost us our very lives. Finally, love is always a pouring out of our own lives on behalf others. If our life is not being given away, then we have not yet learned what Jesus means by love. Of course, we learn how to love gradually and tentatively. Most of our loves, and our lives, are a compromise between our love of Jesus and his sheep and our need to be taken care of. For many of us, we remain young in love, in the sense that Jesus uses the term to Peter, well into old age. Yet, as long as we live in the desire to love and in awareness of our lack of love, we are able to say with Peter, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” If we maintain our good will and keep trying to do what we can to love, we can be certain that God will continue to form us through the events of our lives to that place where, ultimately, we go in love to where we “do not wish to go.”
“The shepherd will be found where the lost sheep is,” he said, and it is up to the flock to follow the shepherd’s same journey of mercy so all 100 may be reunited again and rejoice.
The church needs to reflect often on the parable of the lost sheep, he said, because there is always someone who has strayed from the fold.
Sometimes seeing that empty place at the table, the pope said, “is discouraging and makes us believe that the loss is inevitable, an illness without a cure. And then we run the risk of closing ourselves up in the pen where there will be no smell of sheep, but the stink of stale air.”
Christians, he said, must never have the musty smell of confinement, which happens when a parish or community loses its missionary zeal and cuts itself off from others, seeing itself as “we — quote unquote — the righteous.”
Christians must understand that in Jesus’ eyes, no one is ever lost for good; there “are only sheep that must be found.” God waits up until the very end, like he did for the good thief, who repented before he died on the cross next to Jesus, the pope said.
No distance is too far to keep the shepherd away, and “no flock can give up on a brother” because the joy of finding what was lost belongs both to the faithful and the shepherd, he said.
“We are all sheep who have been found again and welcomed by the Lord’s mercy, called to gather the whole flock together with him,” Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis, May 4, 2016, General Audience, Summary from Catholic News Service