Today’s reading discusses the third appearance of Jesus to a group of Apostles. Peter tells six other apostles that he will go fishing, and they agree to join him. They all labor that night to no avail. There has been discussion regarding their return to fishing and its reason.
Pope St. Gregory.
“It may be asked why Peter, who was a fisherman before his conversion, returned to fishing, when it is said, ‘No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ ” St. Augustine on the other hand said, “If the disciples had done this after the death of Jesus, and before His resurrection, we should have imagined that they did it in despair. But now after that He has risen from the grave, after seeing the marks of His wounds, after receiving, by means of His breathing, the Holy Ghost, all at once they become what they were before, fishers, not of men, but of fishes. We must remember then that they were not forbidden by their apostleship from earning their livelihood by a lawful craft, provided they had no other means of living.”
This makes the most sense of their motive, just as St. Paul would return to his craft of tentmaking to support himself. In Mark 16, it is clear that Jesus tells the women to tell the apostles to go ahead to Galilee. So they are where they should be awaiting Jesus’ arrival there.
Jesus is standing on the shore and calls out to them, asking, “Children, do you have any fish?” None of the apostles recognize him. This is like the other post-resurrection appearances with Mary Magdalene and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He then gives them instructions on where to cast their nets, and they comply. This seems rather strange at first that they would listen to instructions given by some stranger, especially after a night of effort from men who were professionals of their trade.
Steve Ray, in his commentary on John, clarifies this:
It happens very often that the man with the hand-net must rely on the advice of someone on shore, who tells him to cast either to the left or the right, because in the clear water he can often see a shoal of fish invisible to the man in the water.’ Jesus was acting as guide to his fishermen friends, just as people still do today.
The result is a miraculous catch such that they were overwhelmed to handle this. At this point, John recognizes Jesus and states this fact. Peter Kreeft asks and answers, “how did they then eventually recognize him? The answer, in that case, is clear: they recognized him by what he did.” Peter puts on his outer garment and jumps into the sea to get to shore.
There is just so much going on here. The large catch and the difficulty of handling it and only being able to drag it. Peter returned to the catch and hauled the net ashore.
Give a man a fish, and he is satisfied for one day. Give a man 153 fish, and he will spend the rest of Church history trying to understand the symbolism involved. There are plenty of theories projected from St. Jerome and St. Augustine onto the present day. Some very complicated mathematical proofs, such as from Augustine. Jeff Cavins says the number 153 is the numerical total for the Hebrew phrase Ani Elohim, which means “I am God.”
Other symbolism entails the untorn net, which has been interpreted to represent the unity of the apostles or the Church. That the Church will prevail to the end of time, holding its adherents.
We then come to the theologically and symbolically rich telling of Jesus’ questions to Peter.
From John Bergsma:
Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” (v. 15). The question is ambiguous. Who are the “these”? Does Jesus mean:
- (1) “Do you love me more than [you love] these [other men]?” In other words, Do you love me above all other persons in your life?
- (2) “Do you love me more than these [fish]?” In other words, Do you love me more than your profession, your way of life, your livelihood, your “comfort zone”?
- (3) “Do you love me more than these [other men do]?” In other words, Do you have greater love for me than others do? Do you excel in love so as to be suitable to excel also in authority?
Ambiguity abounds in the Gospel of John, and I think it is intentional. All three interpretations may well be meant. Jesus is eliciting from Peter a comprehensive love to correspond to the comprehensive role of shepherding that he will bestow.
It has long been commented on that these three questions parallel Peter’s three denials. Less commented on in that in both of these episodes in the Gospel of John, a “charcoal fire” is mentioned.
Ascension Press’ study “Jesus – The Way, the Truth, and the Life” references:
There are only two places in the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned, both in John. The first being Peter’s triple denial that he knew Jesus, the second being Peter’s triple affirmation that he loved Jesus. There is an interesting detail about charcoal fires over a bonfire. A charcoal fire requires closeness to get warmed. Peter was recognized because of his closeness of people trying to get warm in the courtyard. Our affirmation of love for Jesus can only be close, not a distance, or it is not affirmation of love at all.
There has often been much made of the underlying Greek words Jesus used. John Bergsma offers an important caveat:
This gives the impression that Jesus asks twice, “Do you love me with divine love?” And Peter responds twice, “I love you with brotherly love.” And at last Jesus condescends to Peter’s capabilities: “Do you love me with brotherly love?” thus implying that such love will suffice: Jesus will accept what Peter, no longer brash and now painfully cognizant of his human weakness, knows he can offer. This interpretation is suggestive, but it must be entertained with caution because both phileō and agapaō are used elsewhere in John for both divine and human love.
Other biblical scholars, such as Michael Barber, also say that the different meanings of these two words are a myth most famously popularized by C.S. Lewis.
Peter is hurt not because of the different Greek words used, but the question is asked of him three times in parallel to his three-fold denial. The awareness of our sinful actions often hurts us the most.
Jesus is always doing this: first bringing his disciples down and out of their pride when they feel up, then bringing them up and out of their despair when they feel down. He does that to us too.
Peter gets dressed down, but nevertheless, Jesus calls him to “Follow me.”
- St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study Guide and Commentary for Individuals and Groups: Ray, Stephen K.
- Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflections on the Mass Readings Year C
- The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings for Year C – John Bergsma
- Photo by Ben White on Unsplash