The fisherman and the sheep

In the long version of next Sunday’s gospel reading from John (21:1-19), Jesus asks Peter three questions and after each gives him a directive related to the care of the sheep. It makes me wonder, what does a fisherman know about tending sheep?

In our modern eyes, the directions Jesus gives to Peter about feeding the lambs and sheep and tending them is about the Church. After 2,000 years, that makes sense. But what did Peter think of it all? He’s not recorded asking what sheep or where they were located. Most emphasis, including in the reading itself, is focused on the question that Jesus asks: “Do you love me?” Peter is distressed that Jesus keeps asking him the same question over and over again. Peter has seen Jesus work many miracles, and miraculously rise from the dead. Peter has proclaimed Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one. He’s observed Jesus responding to the Pharisees when they haven’t even muttered a word, reading their thoughts and hearts in His address. How can Jesus, who seems to know all, not know that Peter loves him? I can see how distressing this would be.

Jesus once told Peter he would make him a fisher of men, yet now it seems He is making Peter into a shepherd. What, or who, did Peter think Jesus was referring to when he gave him the instructions to feed and tend the lambs and the sheep? Did Peter think of the sheep as the other disciples? It can be easy for modern day readers of the scriptures to think that what is recorded is the only dialog that ever happened. Perhaps there were other conversations Jesus had with Peter that allowed him to understand the references Jesus made. While the whole concept of a new religion, a new Church, may not have been the detailed instructions Jesus provided, He may have indicated that Peter was to “tend” to those who wanted to follow the way that Jesus had taught and exemplified.

I think of a fisherman as one who entices with bait and then takes the result from the water with the intention of the fish being consumed. A shepherd is quite the opposite, he does not entice with bait, but rather leads the sheep into pastures where they can graze, keeping an eye out for the dangers of weather, predators, and strays. The Church and the popes throughout the centuries have been shepherding God’s people, leading us to a relationship with Jesus and encouraging us to live a life centered on Sacraments and the Beatitudes. The letters and encyclicals of the popes have warned us of potential dangers in society and advised the flock of how to live a Christ-centered life within the culture of their time. 

I’ve read that the three “do you love Me?” questions were meant to correct the three times Peter denied Jesus prior to the crucifixion. Yet after each question and answer, Jesus gives Peter an instruction. Perhaps Jesus asks Peter about the strength of his love for Him because it’s not enough to just say we love someone, but true love is demonstrated by action. Jesus giving Peter a command after asking about Peter’s love for Him are entwined; you can’t have one without the other. 

We, too, are called to show our love for God through our loving interactions with all  those we encounter: family, friends, and individuals whom we may not know but come into contact. We are called to feed the lambs and sheep of Jesus’ flock by sharing the love He has given us with others. Let us keep alert to the opportunities Jesus is asking us if we love Him in the challenging opportunities in our daily lives. 

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