Monday, November 15, 2010

Lost in translation

At the opening Mass for the 2010 Fort Worth diocesan convention, the gospel text was John 21:15-19. It is a powerful passage, but one whose meaning is hidden in translation.

Jesus repeatedly asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Peter responds that he does love Jesus. In turn, Jesus calls him anew as a pastor to the church. Many people see a threefold opportunity for Peter to repent of his threefold denial of Jesus. "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." That is said to explain why Peter was grieved when asked the third time if he loves Jesus; he remembered his threefold denial. While that may be true, the original language gives us more detail, because there are three Greek words for "love" in the New Testament, and two different ones are used in this passage.

The two words for love used here are philo and agape. Philo means to love as a friend or like a brother (hence Philadelphia is the "city of brotherly love"). Agape means to love unconditionally, as God loves. Agape took on a renewed importance with the spread of Christianity. Here is the text with the two different words noted:

John 21:15-19 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me unconditionally [agape] more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you as a friend [philo]." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me unconditionally [agape]?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you as a friend [philo]." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me as a friend [philo]?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me as a friend [philo]?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you as a friend [philo]." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go." (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me."

Peter was grieved the third time because Jesus acknowledged that Peter was not yet willing to say that he loves Jesus unconditionally the way Jesus loves him. The context fits in with the dialogue here. Peter has reverted to the life of a fisherman, neglecting the sheep of his vocation. Jesus calls Peter to come learn unconditional love by living out his vocation.

Finally, Jesus implies that one day Peter will learn to love unconditionally, as he partakes intimately in that sign of God's unconditional love--the cross. By the time Peter is old, he will be crucified, having tended God's flock and learned to love the way God loves. It is no wonder that according to tradition, Peter said that he was not worthy to die in the same way as the Savior, and so he was crucified upside down.

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