Feed My Sheep
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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.” John 21:17
For me, this is one of the more touching passages in the Bible, occurring after Jesus has been crucified, buried, and resurrected. He meets the disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and makes them breakfast. Jesus turns to (Simon) Peter, his most passionate and zealous follower, and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” This exchange repeats itself three times, in slightly different form, with Jesus asking Peter if he loves him, Peter affirming that he does, and Jesus telling him first to feed his lambs, then to tend his sheep, and finally to feed his sheep.. Jesus closes the conversation by repeating the words he had first spoken to his disciples three years earlier, “Follow me.”
The need to repeat three times his instruction to care for his sheep indicates the importance of the directive. The emphasis could not have been accidental. It was as if Jesus were saying, “If you forget everything else I say or do, at least remember this, ‘Care for my family.’” It is obvious that Jesus is not referring to livestock, but to his followers – those he had taught, fed, and healed during his earthly ministry. He knows he will not be physically present to care for his people any longer. He needs his followers to take care of each other and to continue the work he began. It does not require much of a leap in understanding to know Jesus was talking to us. This instruction, from 2000 years ago, was also given for us, today.
There are subtle, but important distinctions in Jesus’ responses to Peter’s assurances about loving him: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,”, and “Feed my sheep.” First is the distinction between feeding and tending; second is the difference between lambs and sheep. The latter is the most obvious, since lambs are baby sheep. Lambs are cute, playful, and lovable, not unlike human children. They are often easier to care for and about than many of their adult counterparts. There is an innocence to a lamb that brings out our protective and nurturing instincts. Biblical authors name Jesus as the Lamb of God, referring to his untarnished purity and meaning he was unbound by earthly entanglements. In numerous places, Jesus tells us to become like, as well as to take care of the little children. In his telling of Peter to feed his lambs, Jesus is reminding the disciples of the importance of caring for the poor, lowly, and weak, regardless of their age.
The second distinction is between feeding and tending. Feeding his sheep has the obvious connotation of making sure the physically hungry have something to eat. Indeed, we cannot turn our lives toward anything but our next meal when we are hungry, nor can we expect others to understand words of wisdom on an empty stomach. Jesus’ stories about feeding the crowds are a reference to the need to attend to physical needs. There is another type of hunger, however, which is spiritual in nature. We are also hungry for the unconditional love of God. When Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he is not referring to food or drink called righteous. Rather, he is referring to an internal hunger, a personal desire to know and do what is right. He says those with such a hunger will be filled, meaning that type of hunger will be satisfied. To tend has a slightly broader meaning than just feeding, which includes protecting, nurturing, and creating a safe place for growth and development.
Finally, the message is for all of his disciples, even though his words were directed to Peter. Although Peter became the head of what would become the Christian church – the first Pope – there was no expectation for Peter to do this alone. The entire community of believers was to care for Jesus’ flock, including caring for each other. That community extends through space and time to include us today. This final instruction of Jesus to us, repeated three times for emphasis and inarguably tied to our love for him, is to feed his sheep.
This is the 40th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000