Jesus said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a 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 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.”
Today we read of the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter on the shore, after Jesus has risen from the dead. It is one of the most familiar of gospel passages for it is a charge to Peter to feed and tend Jesus’ flock. Especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, we read this passage as Jesus’ appointing of Peter to leadership, although recent scholarship suggests there is really no connection between the significance of this passage and the primacy of Peter. Nonetheless, the interchange between Jesus and Simon Peter can give us an insight into what might constitute the unique character of servant leadership.
The most immediately striking aspect of this passage is that Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. It is clear that Peter understands the significance of this as reference to his three-fold denial of Jesus on the night before Jesus’ death. “Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?’” In response Peter says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” In this response I hear a Peter, known throughout the gospel for his impetuosity and even arrogance, as broken open and laid bare before himself, Jesus, and the others. It is not a mere assertion of his love for Jesus, but rather a simple statement of love that arises out of a humility (even a humiliation) that acknowledges that everyone there, Jesus and the other disciples, knows both of his denial of Jesus and of his disappearance from the events of Jesus’ passion and death. The one who swore that he would never leave and betray Jesus had done precisely that.
Before Jesus will finally charge Peter with his pastoral call, Peter’s inner secrets and shame must be brought to the fore. The truth is drawn out of Peter by Jesus progressively in the course of the dialogue. Jesus’ first question to Peter is “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” For a long time I read this question to mean that Jesus was asking Peter if his love for Jesus was greater than that of the other disciples. Yet, it is rather much more likely that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him, that is Jesus, more than he, Peter, loves the other disciples. For Jesus, before one can truly care for, tend to, and feed others, one must love Jesus more than the others. Clearly for the Peter who denies Jesus and then is no where to be found as Jesus is humiliated and crucified, this was not the case.
In our life and work, especially if we are called to positions of authority or responsibility over others, we are usually driven by very mixed motives. We want to serve, on the one hand, but we also want to be seen as somebody, as significant. The great danger in having any position of influence or authority over others is our unconscious need to be seen as powerful, or good, or needed. What we do, even when it is the wrong thing, is an appeal to some persons, somewhere (even if in our imaginations) to see us as significant. This is the effect of loving another (including ourselves) or others more than the one who has called us. This is often summed up in the aphorism: “There are people who want to lead to do something, and others who want to lead to be someone.” The real leaders are the former. When we are leading out of our need to be significant in our own eyes or the eyes of others, we are unlikely to be aware of how much we don’t know. When we take our role as requiring that we do know, we are much more likely to behave with violence. We are in a position where our ignorance, clothed as knowing, can harm others.
Unlike the Beloved Disciple who is standing there and who becomes a part of the conversation in the following verses, the brash and arrogant Peter, the “born leader,” denies Jesus and disappears at the pivotal moment in Jesus’ life. Before Peter can become what we might call today a “servant leader,” he must acknowledge and live in the humility of the truth of who he really is, and he must also endure the humiliation of this being brought to the fore with all the others. This is enormously counter-intuitive to our sense of how to select a leader. Perhaps a brief example from my own community’s experience will illustrate the point.
We elect our leaders at a meeting called a General Chapter, which occurs every six years. The process of selecting leadership always involves some form of nomination. The way this usually works is that individual members of the chapter offer a name and the reasons that they are placing that brother’s name in nomination. Without fail, those reasons are a listing of positive characteristics, usually true to at least some degree but that, in their sum, equal a description that perhaps not even Jesus could measure up to. Even though we are a small group, since we are international in character there will always be some who know the nominee much better than others. Yet, without fail, those who do know the nominee fail to raise questions about what in this person would make leadership difficult or problematic for him. In brief, there are secrets about a person, secrets almost always known to some, that are kept from the entire body. By choice, we place ourselves and the nominee in the difficult position of selecting and being a leader based on a false premise. Perhaps this happens out of a sense of civility or decorum, or perhaps it is the result of how difficult it is to trust God enough to make our choices “in truth.”
The result is that an inflated portrait of those nominated is the basis for our election and selection. Isn’t this true of politics in general? Isn’t it the work of a political campaign to inflate the qualities of its own candidate while deflating those of the opponent? Why do we inflate ourselves or even others, for that matter? It is due to the fact that we love others more than the Truth. If the opinion of others is important enough to us, then we shall manipulate other persons and the world around us in order to gain that good opinion, to be seen as good, or noble, or strong, or significant. So the Jesus who says “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last. For many are called but few are chosen.” (Mt. 20:16) is actually serious, not just in theory but in practice. To feed his lambs and to tend and feed his sheep, he wants someone who knows who he or she is and who does not fear being recognized for who he or she is.
it is always our pride form that is the obstacle to truly being of service. Unlike Jesus’ teaching we tend to put the leader in the top place. As a result, that in us which fears our own deficiency and weakness seeks status to cover it, and one form of status is to be the designated leader. This is what Jesus understands about us, and so he takes Peter to a place of “distress,” a place where he knows his inadequacy to the task. For Jesus a pastor or servant leader is one who leads not from his strength but from his weakness. Such a person will be heedless of how what he does is seen by others, for his heart is set on the Lord alone.
After spending many years in listening to and counseling others, I came to realize that I was the most good for people when I was aware that I did not understand them. When I had no pearls of wisdom to give them, I could serve their finding their own wisdom. When I was sure I “had it,” I was a danger to them. I would then, thoughtlessly, tell them what they should do or how they should feel. Yet, my not-knowing is actually my greatest service to others and the requirement of a full presence to them. So often, my own “wisdom” gets in the way of service. It is when we have been brought low, as is Peter in his distress, that we are truly in the position to serve the mysterious life of others.
The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.
She is good to people who are good..
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.
She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.
The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #49, trans. Stephen Mitchell
Knowing not-knowing is lofty.
Not knowing not-knowing is affliction.
A sage stays free of affliction.
Just recognize it as affliction
and you’re free of it.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #71, trans. David Hinton