When Simon Peter saw the great catch, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8)
Peter had already witnessed Jesus heal his mother-in-law (Lk 4:38–39). Like all who witnessed the great catch of fish, he was astonished (Lk 5:9). He recognizes that God is acting through Jesus, and he pays homage to God through an act of humility, which reveals the religious culture in which he lived. That culture holds that sin is incompatible with God, who is holy. Awareness of the holiness and presence of God makes man aware of his sinfulness, and then man becomes tense, unable in God’s presence even to swallow in peace (Job 7:19). The Bible conveys this by portraying Adam and Eve scurrying to shield themselves from God’s penetrating gaze by making loincloths, and then attempting to hide from Him. Job verbalized it: “Leave me alone” (Job 7:16). Peter shows that he has inherited this theology and spirituality when he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
What could be more directly in opposition to the mission of Jesus, who said: “I came to call sinners” (Mt 9:13); “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:2); “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Lk 7:47); “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28)? In this encounter with Jesus, Peter already shows himself to be, in words that Jesus would speak later, but in the same context of His mission to forgive sins, “an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). But Jesus does not so rebuke him at the time of the great catch of fish. He knows that Peter has such a great deal to learn!
In contrast to Peter, “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him” (Lk 15:1). In fact, Jesus—God Himself become man—begins his public ministry by drawing near to the greatest gathering of self-professing sinners: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him [John the Baptist], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk 1:5). In Christ, God is seeking sinners. “In Christ, religion is no longer a ‘blind search for God’ (cf. Acts 17:27) but the response of faith to God [who] goes in search of man … because he loves him eternally in the Word” (John Paul II, Tertio millennio adveniente, 6–7). Peter will come to this fulness of faith, but only after he discovers that his sins do not cause God to stop searching for him.
By saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinner,” Peter displays how profoundly in need he is of that great “renewal of the mind” (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23) that faith brings. In Jesus Christ, God Himself will suffer and die in order to bring about this renewal of the mind regarding God’s drawing close to sinners—precisely to forgive them and to reconcile them to Himself. The myster is that He draws close to sinners in their suffering through His own suffering.
And Peter was following Him at a distance. (Matthew 26:58)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that when Jesus was arrested, Peter followed Him, but at a distance. In following Him, Peter shows his love for Jesus, even as he had earlier professed: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away. […] Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:33–35). There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Yet, not a long while later, Peter maintains a discreet distance. In this, he shows his love for himself. He is playing it safe, leaving himself an escape—just in case. This tension between his love of self and his love for Jesus will play out definitively when he is given three opportunities to profess his love for Jesus, and yet fail the test.
Lent is the penitential season during which Christ’s disciples strive to identify the ways in which we still follow Jesus at a distance—so that we can follow Him more perfectly into His paschal mystery during the Triduum. We will be wise humbly to make our own the words of King David, following his conversion: “Who can detect his own failings? Purify me of my hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). Who could pray such words? Who realizes that there are hidden sins? Well, someone, like David, who suddenly found himself captive to a lust that might have been purified before he gave into it; for, it was always there, biding its time, as if in stealth mode, waiting for the opportunity to come between David and David’s God. Someone, like David, who has experienced God’s mercy and is thereby emboldened no longer to conceal his sins but rather to hunt them down, like a dog flushing hidden quail.
In fact, one of the great fruits of conversion and faith in God’s mercy is precisely the fear that one’s sins go unchecked. As the wise man puts it:
Who will lay whips to my thoughts, and the discipline of wisdom to my heart, to be merciless to my errors and not let my sins go unchecked, for fear my errors should multiply and my sins then abound and I fall before my adversaries, and my enemy gloat over me? (Sirach 23:2–3)
For this, we need to be confronted by the word of God, as Nathan confronted David, as Peter was confronted by the words of the Word of God, when, as the cock crowed, he remembered Jesus’s words that predicted his denials. But above all, we need to confront the word of God’s merciful love, which alone gives hope that sin not have the last word. This is the twofold truth about sin and about God’s mercy, which the Church puts on our lips just before receiving Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
Lent is the season to seek more deliberately such salutary confrontation the word of God. It is a time for cooperating with the piercing and discerning word of God; a time purposely to become spiritually naked and exposed to the Word of God, in keeping with the words of the Catechism, that the goal of meditation “is to make our own in faith the subject considered, by confronting it with the reality of our own life” (CCC, 2723).
And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” (Luke 22:61)
It is difficult to imagine a more intense moment nakedness and exposure to the truth! Twice, Peter has said, “I do not know the man” (Mt 26:72, 74). The Greek verb here invites us to translate this as: “He means nothing to me.” With this, Peter is liable to the same charge that Nathan made against David: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” (2 Sam 12:9). God is right to ask: After all I have done for you, how could you set memory of my great acts of love aside with such contempt?
David and Peter personify the sins of Israel, when the people fail to listen to voice of God “although they had seen all of His works” (Ps 95:9). In the Old Testament, these works are the mighty deeds of God: the ten plagues; the parting of the sea; the water from the rock; the bronze serpent; the manna. Yet, the prophets’ mission is to indict them for so often forgetting these great acts of God’s saving love and fall into sin. In every sin, there is a conscious or unconscious contempt for God’s words and deeds of revelation. In every sin, the sinner says: His words, His mighty deeds and acts of love mean nothing to me.
But there is a great difference between the sins of Israel and David, who show contempt for the word of God, and Peter’s contempt, which is for the Incarnate Word of God. The Letter to the Hebrews incisively describes the power of God’s word and the Word of God to confront a person with the truth:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)
Jesus’s look at Peter was a look of truth and a look of love, for Jesus is both truth and love. The truth exposed Peter’s sin, while the love made it possible for him to repent with tears.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16)
Jesus poses this question to Peter three times. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church perceive a fittingness in this; since Peter had denied Jesus three times, and thereby failed to love Him, Jesus wants to bring good out of evil, and He wants Peter’s cooperation by making a threefold profession of his love for Him. That is what mercy does; it fills the void of love with love.
Jesus displays great patience, prudence, and mercy in the timing of this question. Jesus is God, and God is “an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (CCC, 221). What God the Son has lived eternally, He longs to live as a man in this world. How patient Jesus is as He waits so long before hearing Peter say, “I love you”!
It is no accident that Jesus does not pose the question about Peter’s love prior to his three denials and His passion, death, and resurrection. For, He knows that before then it would be an unfair question. He knows Peter’s misplaced confidence in his love for Jesus, which he demonstrates in his self-assured declaration that he is ready to die with Jesus: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). Jesus knew the truth, when he said to Peter, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now” (Jn 13:36).
So, Jesus refrains from asking Peter about his love for Him until his profession of love corresponds to the truth. And He knows that this cannot happen until Peter experiences the forgiveness of his sins. Jesus knows that prior to the paschal mystery Peter will display the presumption of a beginner prior to the dark nights. He has, after all, left everything to follow Jesus. He has witnessed His miracles, taken in His teachings, professed his faith, observed His wisdom in interacting with the Pharisees and Scribes, and seen the growing crowds of those who believe in Him. In reality, his relationship with Jesus is still largely based on the partial and preparatory self-giving of Jesus in these consolations. In contrast to Peter, at a certain point Jesus leaves the season of consolations behind, when He resolutely turns to embrace that mysterious necessity of the Father’s wisdom that the Christ should suffer and die, in order to fulfill His mission: “his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Lk 9:53).
At the time that he proclaims that he is ready to die for Jesus, Peter thinks he is “all in.” But he has not yet fully overcome his resistance to the idea of a suffering Messiah. Prior to the paschal mystery and his conversion, Peter is much like David, as he describes the transition from the consolation of prosperity to the desolation of apparent abandonment by God:
In my prosperity I said to myself,
‘I shall never be shaken.’
O Lord, your favor had set me like a mountain stronghold.
Then you hid your face, and I was put to confusion.” (Psalm 30:6–7)
St. Thomas comments that the words of verse six are said with a “presumptuous heart,” that is, “the presumption of one who trusts in himself.”1 Presumption is a sin against hope. It “consists in inordinate conversion to God”2—inordinate, because it relies on man’s resolve rather than God’s grace. It is an “immoderate hope … whereby a man relies on his own power … if he tends to a good as though it were possible to him, whereas it surpasses his powers.”3
Peter is not duplicitous when he professes readiness to die for Jesus as the sign of his love for Him. He is simply spiritually naïve, unaware of sinful “hidden faults” (Ps 19:12) that have not yet been purified. That is, he is unaware of the depths of the disorder of love of self to the point of contempt of God (Augustine). But, there is more. Peter’s insistence that he is ready to die for Jesus comes in the context of Jesus predicting, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Mt 26:31), and he flatly denies this: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Mt 26:33).
St. Thomas’s analysis of presumption being rooted in vainglory is apropos: “Such like presumption clearly arises from vainglory; for it is owing to a great desire for glory, that a man attempts things beyond his power, and especially novelties which call for greater admiration.”4 Peter can accept that the other apostles will fall away from Jesus. He cannot accept that he will. This would set him apart from the others. He will learn that in God’s eyes, what is worthy of greater admiration is the greater conversion. There is rich, even divine, irony in the fact that Peter’s presumptuous profession of love for Jesus will in fact set him apart from the others, who did not presumptuously contradict Jesus as he did. Only Peter overtly denies the Lord three times!
“Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” (John 21:15, 16)
Peter’s way of responding to Jesus’s question, “Do you love me?” is meant to catch our attention. His response to the third time that Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” confirms that it is significant for St. John, the Evangelist: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17). St. Thomas comments that Jesus’s threefold interrogation about Peter’s love causes him to recall that earlier “he so quickly asserted that he loved him.” Seeing how presumptuous it was to contradict Jesus, “he is afraid he will be rebuked again and becomes sad.”
Thus, he says, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” He is saying in effect: I do love you, in as much as I am able to know my love for you. But you know all things, and perhaps you know of something else that will happen.”5
Peter’s sin has taught him to trust more in what Jesus knows than what he knows about his love for Him. With this, his presumption is entirely uprooted. In Peter, St. John’s axiom, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19), is verified. This reinforces the earlier point about the wisdom of Jesus in not asking Peter about his love for Him prior to the paschal mystery. For, only when love for Jesus is a response to His having loved us “to the end” (Jn 13:1)—rather than based on the love He demonstrates in His miracles and teaching—is our love for Him strong enough to journey through the dark nights.
Only after the experience of being forgiven his sins can Peter profess his love for Jesus with the confidence that is rooted in Jesus’s words about the love of Mary Magdalen (the Penitent Woman): “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). To love Jesus because He has forgiven one’s sins is to love Him in the truth of His paschal mystery. Only such a love is a solid foundation for devotion to the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life. Only after Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, and Peter’s conversion, are Jesus’s words fulfilled: “you will follow later” (Jn 13:36).
“Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
Corresponding to Peter’s three professions of love for Him, Jesus issues a threefold command, “Feed my lambs.… Tend my sheep.… Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:25, 16, 17). St. Thomas comments: “In this way the final entrustment of the Church is made to the humbled Peter.”6 More elaborately:
Our Lord permitted Peter to deny him because he wanted the very one who was to be the head of the entire Church to be all the more compassionate to the weak and sinners, having experienced in himself his own weakness in the face of sin: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15). This is true of Christ, and it can also be said of Peter, with his sins.7
Peter is worthy of the entrustment of the Church of sinners to him because of his faith, love, and humility that are the fruit of his experience of his sin and God’s mercy. At this point, the only way for Peter to fulfill the new law to love others as he has been loved by Christ (Jn 13:34) is to exercise a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). There is no longer another Peter, who has some part of his life that has any other meaning. His martyrdom will confirm that. Peter has become an alter Christus through his experience of the divine mercy that is definitively revealed in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.
All of this is true for all whom the Lord calls to Holy Orders in order to continue His mission of mercy. Again, St. Thomas faithfully interprets the intention of Jesus in asking Peter about his love for Him.
This questioning was also appropriate for the office, since many who assume a pastoral office use it as self-lovers. “In the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self” (1 Tim 3:1). One who does not love the Lord is not a fit prelate. A fit prelate is one who does not seek his own advantage, but that of Christ’s; and he does this through love: “The love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor 5:14). Love also becomes this office because it benefits others: for it is due to the abundance of love that those who love Jesus will at times give up the quest of their own contemplation to help their neighbor. Although the Apostle said, “I am sure that neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:39), he added, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren” (Rom 9:3). Thus, a prelate should be questioned about his love.8
Jesus’s act of entrustment of the Church to Peter would be unfounded, it would not be fully human and reasonable, without His having administered what might be taken as the first Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity—each article of which Peter embraces in humility and love that are the fruit of his conversion.
“Follow me.” (John 21:19)
Immediately following Peter’s third profession of love and Jesus’s third commission that he feed His sheep, Jesus says to him: “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.” St. John tells us what these words mean: “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” Of course, this refers to Peter’s martyrdom. “And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me” (Jn 21:18–19). Now Peter knows that the full truth about his vocation to follow Jesus is for him to continue Christ’s mission of mercy by participating in His paschal mystery.
A symmetry is now evident between the pre-paschal and post-paschal exhortations, “Follow me,” on one hand, and Peter’s pre-paschal and post-paschal sense of sin, on the other hand. On the occasion of the miraculous catch of fish, Peter professes his sinfulness. He thinks it is a disqualification for being close to Jesus. But for Jesus, awareness of one’s sins is an essential qualification, and so He issues the call to follow Him and to participate in His mission: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5:10). Certainly, Jesus knows that Peter has much to learn about his sin and God’s mercy. He knows that Peter’s sense of sin and understanding of lengths to which God’s love will go are not as deep as His, and that for this reason Peter cannot yet grasp the wisdom of that mysterious “necessity that the Christ should suffer and die in order to enter into His glory.” But, Jesus also has a plan to get him there by revealing the paschal nature of His love as the fulfillment of God’s plan for the forgiveness of sins. Ultimately, sin is a denial of the love of God fully revealed in Christ paschal sacrifice, which reveals what it means for God to love “to the end” (Jn 13:1), that is, to the utter perfection of that love of which none is greater, by laying down His life for His friends (Jn 15:13).
Peter makes his pre-paschal confession of sin with words without tears, his post-paschal confession with tears with no need for words. Were he to put words to them, they would undoubtedly be much like those of St. Paul, who referred to Jesus Christ as “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The Church Fathers refer to Peter’s post-paschal confession with tears as a second baptism or “baptism of tears” (St. Clement of Alexandria). St. Ephraim the Syrian refers to the eyes that weep in holy repentance as “two fonts that give absolution.” “St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, ‘there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance’” (CCC, 1429). Through his tears of repentance, Peter participates in the priesthood and tears of Christ, Who in weeping over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41) and with His “loud cries and tears” (Heb 5:7), is made perfect as priest through suffering (Heb 2:10).
The symmetry between Peter’s pre- and post-paschal confession of sins entails another symmetry, this one between Jesus’ first, pre-paschal entrustment of the Church to Peter and His final, post-paschal entrustment. The first is in response to Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). The second, which St. Thomas calls “the final entrustment of the Church” that Christ “made to the humbled Peter” is in response to Peter’s profession of love for Jesus. With this foundation of Peter’s faith and his love, we arrive at an adequate understanding of the twofold solidity of the rock upon which Jesus continues to build His Church.
For Peter to be worthy of final entrustment of the Church to him, he has to learn, not as a classroom lesson but existentially, personally, that sin is a denial of the love of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Similarly, he will learn that His paschal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. Now, with Peter’s formation complete as a result of his conversion, as evidenced in his post-paschal profession of love for Him, Jesus reiterates the call to follow Him. With this, His words, “you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me later” (Jn 13:36), are fulfilled.
With each new stage of the spiritual journey, these words of Jesus are also fulfilled in the life of every disciple. The graces of following Jesus today are the promise of future graces by which we may follow Him more and more closely, ever reducing the distance between us and Him precisely through a deeper realization of that distance and a corresponding deeper repentance and conversion, which is to enter more fully into His paschal mystery. With each conversion from sin, which is the experiencing of not following Jesus now, we do follow Him later, and we are thereby ready to respond as Peter died when He repeats the question, “Do you love me?” and say, more truthfully, more meaningfully than before, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love you!”
• Related at CWR: “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of King David” (March 12, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• Related at CWR: “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of St. Peter” (March 19, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
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