Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Four)

What is the best translation for Jesus’ question to Peter in John 21:15? Ilaria Ramelli demonstrates that the emphasis in the question should fall on “me.” As a result, the verse reads, “Therefore, when they ate breakfast, Jesus says to Simon Peter, ‘Simon [son of] John, do you love me more than these [other disciples? Things?]” (my translation).

There is no case to made for an emphasis on “you” in the question. In fact, the pronoun for “you” does not appear in the verse. This absence of an emphatic subject “makes it strongly implausible that Jesus is contrasting Peter, the subject of the phrase, to the other disciples as the one who loves Jesus more than the others do” (page 333). In his response, Peter asserts his love for Jesus without the comparison and thus ignores the real kernel of the question.

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Ramelli shows that the contrast Jesus proposes is between loving him and loving someone or something else more. Thus, the second issue is the phrase the NRSV translates as “these.” These what? Some translations and interpretations assume that “these” refers to the other disciples. But, as Ramelli notes, the word for “these” can just as easily be neuter in gender as masculine here. That is, the translation “these things” is readily permissible in grammatical terms.

“Peter should love Jesus more than anything else,” Ramelli continues. “This is why Jesus predicts his martyrdom soon after” (page 334). The translation of “these things” is necessary, according to Ramelli, in grammatical terms beyond the ambiguity of gender in the construction. Ramelli disagrees with Raymond Brown in this regard. Brown argues that a choice for Peter between the material things of this world and the risen Jesus would be “ridiculous, but it is precisely the choice between Jesus and all the rest of the world,” Ramelli responds, “including his own life, that leads Peter to total service and martyrdom” (page 334).

Ramelli reminds us that some scholars argue against a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus felt or expressed by the other disciples. Such a comparison would indicate a rivalry among the disciples which runs quite counter to the nature of the discipleship community in the Johannine account. In addition, Ramelli notes that in the Johannine account it is the Beloved Disciple who is pre-eminent in love for Jesus, if any comparison is to be made (page 335).

The one possible translation that makes sense of the comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus on the part of the others is a translation with an ironic sense. “So, Peter, do you think you love me more than these other characters do? I’m not sure your track record stands up to that scrutiny, if in fact that’s what you think of yourself.” While Ramelli merely mentions this translation possibility in passing, I’m not sure we should dispense with that possibility quite so easily – especially given the frequency of irony and double entendre in the Johannine account.

If, on the other hand, the translation really needs to be “these things” rather than “these other characters,” then the ironic translation is either inaccurate or has a different twist to it. Ramelli launches into a dauntingly detailed grammatical and philological analysis of the Greek phrase. The analysis covers several pages, several languages, several genres, and several centuries. If that sort of thing is your interest, then be sure to read the article (probably several times to get it all).

Ramelli concludes that the grammar, syntax, and textual analysis demand the translation, “Do you love me more than these things?” In particular, the phrasing of the question in other contexts and documents connects love for Jesus to martyrdom, especially in first-century, New Testament contexts. Thus, this is likely the best translation of the question.

Commentators note the connection between John 21 and the call of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. In the Lukan account, the disciples leave “everything” and follow Jesus in response to the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of the event. He falls to his knees before Jesus and confesses that he is a sinful man. Karoline Lewis suggests that the placement of the large catch of fish at the end of the Johannine account “will necessitate a reevaluation of what discipleship means” (page 254).

Lewis argues that abundance is a consistent theme within the Johannine account, and that this theme is central to our text for this week. “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance,” she writes, “The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace” (page 255). The ascended Christ is certainly known at this moment as the disciples experience abundant fish. For just a moment, at least, I have to wonder if these “these things” refers to the fish.

That may seem to be an odd and trivial connection, but I’m not so sure about that. Peter, do you love me for me? Or are you grateful that I can provide you with such an abundance of stuff? If the fish went away, would you still feel the same need to connect to me? Are you committed to me for me, Peter, or for you?

This is an ongoing question in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I think about the Satan’s question to God regarding Job. “Does Job love God for nothing?” Some translations render this question along the lines of “for no reason,” but I don’t think that’s right. Job is swimming in abundance – of stuff, of honor, of family, of well-being. What’s not to like? But the Accuser focuses on the ambiguity of such abundance. Can we sort out our love for God from our love for satisfaction and security?

There is nothing more attractive to us than the realization that someone else loves us. In fact, too often we can mistake our love for being loved as being our love for another. Jesus lifts this up in the Lukan sermon on the level spot in chapter 6. If I love those who love me, how can I sort that out? If I do good as part of a mutuality pact, how can I discern my real motives? If I lend at interest, how can I call that altruism? Instead, love with no expectation of return. That’s what makes us “children of the Most High.” That’s the way to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

Peter, do you love me more than these fish? I don’t know if that’s actually the question. But I think it may actually be the question. Peter, do you love me for me or for the benefits? When the benefits went away, for example during Jesus’ trial, Peter’s love seemed a fleeting thing at best. “In John, Peter does not deny Jesus or knowing Jesus,” Lewis reminds us, “but he denies his discipleship. Jesus will now reveal to Peter what discipleship demands” (page 256).

Lewis argues that the threefold question in John 21 is not only about Peter’s forgiveness, reinstatement, and/or rehabilitation. “None of these summaries adequately recognizes the significance of Jesus’ request of Peter,” she continues. “Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple, but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (page 256). So will we.

Jesus puts the question to me. “Do you love me more than these things?” These things, in my case, are probably not a netful of large fish (although I have not been above praying for a large catch on particularly slow fishing days). These things might be some other sort of material stuff. These things might be my privilege, power, position, or property – these things that might be at risk if I really followed Jesus fully. Do I love Jesus more than I love these things?

Well, now we’ve gone from preaching to meddling, as they say.

It strikes me that my response to this question is more about giving myself to Jesus than it is giving myself for Jesus. Loving Jesus means placing myself in his loving care, come what may. That’s far more frightening than making heroic sacrifices for Jesus — acts for which I could perhaps take credit now or later. This love is most clearly expressed as trust regardless of the circumstances. I can’t think of any greater “demand” on me (except that it’s an invitation, rather than a demand).

“Trust is our gift back to God,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “and [God] finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). This is the real conversion for believers, Manning suggests. “The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God,” Manning notes, “than a practical trust in [God’s] loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). Peter, will you love me even when the fish are scarce, and the fears are plentiful? More important, will you trust me to love you to the end?

That’s a question with some real bite (pardon the fishing pun) – both for me as an individual disciple and for us as disciple communities. The answer can set us free to become the fully human persons God has created us to be. “The heart converted from mistrust to trust in the irreversible forgiveness of Jesus Christ is redeemed from the corrosive power of fear,” Manning writes. This conversion, he continues, “is the moment of sovereign deliverance from the warehouse of worry” (page 7).

The fish are going to disappear, Peter. Troubles are going to multiply in their place. You can trust me, Jesus says, in either case. Will you? If so, then you can be freed to love as I love.

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.


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Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning — Throwback Thursday Books

“The faith that animates the Christian community,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “is less a matter of believing in the existence of God than a practical trust in his loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). As some of us Christians move through the Gospel of Mark this year, there is no better meditation aid than Manning’s book.

I have almost as much of his text highlighted, underlined, boxed, and/or starred as I do not. I will do what I can to lift up the best carry-out lines in this inspired and inspiring work, but I may not get out of the first chapter before I come to my 1500 words (or so).

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First, a bit about Manning himself. Manning was born in New York City in 1934 (just a few weeks after my father, coincidentally). He grew up a good Roman Catholic boy who enlisted in the Marines after high school and served in the Korean War. When he returned, he went to university and then seminary. He was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1963.

A few years later Manning joined the Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucald and served among and with the poor in a variety of settings here in the States and in Europe. After about fifteen years of ministry, Manning faced and began to wrestle with his alcoholism. His illness bedeviled him all his adult life and contributed to his death in 2013.

Manning later left the priesthood and married Roslyn. They raised a family but were later divorced. Manning was a noted speaker, retreat leader, and author. His best-known book is The Ragamuffin Gospel, but he wrote numerous books. His story has been adapted in at least two movies.

Ruthless Trust is one of the high points of his writing and speaking, produced a decade after The Ragamuffin Gospel. He sought to journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, from intellectual assent to living trust, from fearing God to loving God. I have connected to his work personally and emotionally because of some similar dynamics in our growing up years. His mother struggled to connect to him and even to want him as a son. That tragic lack of acceptance, affirmation, and love drove him to find life elsewhere – a quest that was periodically successful.

“If we could free ourselves from the temptation to make faith a mindless assent to a dusty pawnshop of doctrinal beliefs,” he writes, “we would discover with alarm that the essence of biblical faith lies in trusting God” (page 6). This seems to be the itch Mark’s Gospel is scratching in chapters 1 through 8. Manning lived by desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope in the midst of a life careening from triumph to train wreck and back again.

“The basic premise of biblical trust,” Manning suggests, “is the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience the fullness of life. However,” he cautions, “this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and most often through a series of crises and trials” (page 9). Ruthless trust is sort of like the way my dad described wisdom. Wisdom comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, experience usually comes from bad judgment. I can testify to the truth of that observation.

Ruthless trust comes from experiencing, over and over, God’s reliability in Christ by the power of the Spirit, in the midst of trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, those trials and tribulations often arise because of bad judgment (or sheer bad luck). If, as the Gospel of Mark asserts, faith is resilient reliance on the faithfulness of God in life and in death, then the way we live creates many opportunities to practice that resilient reliance in the aftermath of our own choices and chances. Mark and Brennan would have gotten on famously, I think.

He had me in chapter one, however, with his personal story. It’s worth quoting at some length.

“The biggest obstacle to my journey of trust has been an oppressive sense of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and low self-esteem. I have no memory of being held, hugged, or kissed by my mother as a little boy. I was called a nuisance and a pest and told to shut up and be still” (page 13). My experience was not quite so cold, but there are enough similarities for me to listen and learn.

“My mother had been orphaned at age three,” Manning continues, “both her parents died in a flu epidemic in Montreal – and sent to an orphanage where she lived for several years, until she was eventually adopted. Then, at age eighteen, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, for training as a registered nurse. Having received little attention or affection through those early years, she was incapable of giving any” (page 13, my emphasis). When I read Manning’s story, I was able to begin to think about having compassion for my poor, dear mother – another who received little attention or affection and therefore had not much to share with me.

Forgiveness for others and acceptance of ourselves just as we are – these are steps along the path of ruthless trust in God, Manning suggests. “In order to grow in trust,” he writes, “we must allow God to see us and love us precisely as we are” (page 16). That’s the prayerful work of a lifetime, at least in my experience. But when I do it, I am transformed.

“With a strong affirmation of our goodness,” Manning writes, “and a gentle understanding of our weakness, God is loving us – you and me – this moment, just as we are and not as we should be. There is nothing any of us can do,” he asserts, “to increase [God’s] love for us and nothing we can do to diminish it” (page 19). This is one of the hardest parts of grace to convey to people – that God wants nothing from me and also wants everything for me. Since God needs nothing from me, all God offers me is free, unmerited, and unconditional.

That’s grace. God loves me for nothing. And God invites me to trust that unconditional love. “Trust is our gift back to God,” Manning writes, and God “finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If only we Jesus followers could live that way and declare our message in those terms.

The Way of Trust leads us to “The Way of Gratefulness,” in chapter two. “Gratitude arises from the lived perception, evaluation, and acceptance of all of life as grace,” he writes, “as an undeserved and unearned gift from the Father’s hand” (page 24). Manning helped me to see a simple relationship. Happiness arises from gratitude. Gratitude arises from trust in God’s grace.

This life of ruthless trust is lived in the face of life’s traumas. “How does one dare to propose the way of trust,” Manning asks in chapter three, “The Enormous Difficulty,” “in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder, and the terror of history?” (page 39). Yes, that is the question, eh?

We make this daring proposition because we trust that God is with us in the suffering – that is the meaning of the cross of Christ. “Anyone God uses significantly,” Manning says, “is always deeply wounded” (page 48). Manning’s life is testimony to that assertion. “On the last day,” he continues, “Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars” (Ibid).

This leads Manning, as it does all honest theologians, to the via negativa, the apophatic experience of God through opposites. “The more we let go of our concepts and images, which always limit God,” he writes, “the bigger God grows and the more we approach the mystery of [God’s] indefinability” (page 56).

We Western Christians don’t like that very much. We want a God we can analyze, systematize, and legalize. “All that is elusive, enigmatic, hard to grasp will eventually yield to our intellectual investigation, then to our categorization – or so we would like to think,” Manning notes. “But to avoid mystery is to avoid the only God worthy of worship, honor, and praise,” he continues. We are really searching for “a God worthy of awe, silent reverence, total commitment, and whole-hearted trust” (page 57). We find ourselves back in Mark’s gospel, I think.

The apophatic move is the province of the “artists, mystics, and clowns,” Manning writes in chapter five. “Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust,” Manning argues, “we need the artists and mystics” (page 68). That is hardly the theological trend in the triumphalist Western church of our age.

In the spirit of the disciples in the boat in Mark 3, Manning writes of the “Infinite and Intimate” God in chapter six. “The awareness that the eternal, transcendent God of Jesus Christ is our absolute future gives us the shakes,” he writes. “One day out of the blue comes the thought of our inevitable death, and the thought is so troubling that we want to live the rest of our lives in a shoe” (page 76). The way we Christians deal with these existential shakes is by trusting in Jesus, God who is both infinite and intimate. “For me and many others,” Manning says, “Jesus is the revelation of the only God worthy of trust” (page 89).

That trust is no simple solution to complex problems, nor is it easily achieved. “Often trust begins on the far side of despair,” Manning writes. “When all human resources are exhausted, when the craving for reassurances is stifled, when we forgo control, when we cease trying to manipulate God and demystify Mystery, then – at our wits’ end – trust happens within us,” he declares (page 117). That trust takes the shape of humble confidence as we come to God through Jesus exactly as we are.

How then shall we live out this ruthless trust? “Trust yourself as one entrusted by God,” Manning says, “with everything you need to live life to the full” (page 145). “Ruthless trust ultimately comes down to this,” he writes in the final chapter, “faith in the person of Jesus and hope in his promise. In spite of all disconcerting appearances, we stare down death without nervousness and anticipate resurrection solely because Jesus has said, ‘You have my word on it’” (page 178).

“To be like Christ,” Manning declares, “is to be a Christian.” Yes, that’s right. It is a life of desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope. I pray to live that way at least a few seconds each day.