“Do you love me? … Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17) Earlier Jesus had said: “If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and will make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14:23-24) Loving Jesus is about keeping his Word so as to be at home with God. In his teaching on the ‘Good Shepherd,’ Jesus said: “The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. … the sheep hearken to his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has herded out all of his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” (John 10:2-4) In this image of a shepherd with his sheep we can see what it means to be at home with God — it is as the Psalm suggests:
‘The Lord is my best friend and my shepherd.
I always have more than enough.
He offers a resting place for me in his luxurious love.
His tracks take me to an oasis of peace, the quiet brook of bliss.
That’s where he restores and revives my life.
He opens before me pathways to God’s pleasure
and leads me along in his footsteps of righteousness
so that I can bring honour to his name.
Lord, even when your path takes me
through the valley of deepest darkness,
fear will never conquer me, for you already have!
You remain close to me and lead me through it all the way.
Your authority is my strength and my peace.
The comfort of your love takes away my fear.
I’ll never be lonely, for you are near.’ (Psalm 23:1-4)
To be in this relationship with God is why we ‘listen to his voice.’ (John 10:16) It is not as though, in following him, we will not go through dark times where the going gets tough. Rather, it is that we will have learnt to trust that where he leads will bring us to no harm. Here I am mindful of Benedict’s word to the newcomer: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It’s bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:48-49) We do have to learn to trust in the Lord, to learn to listen to his voice, that we may go on secure in the knowledge that God loves us so much. (John 3:16) So, Jesus word to us is, as it was to Peter: “Come, follow me.” (John 21:22; 1:39;; Mark 1:17ff; 2:14; 10:21) Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” is a call to follow him in trusting love, as a sheep follows its shepherd.
“Do you love me? … Feed my sheep.” Out of this great love for the shepherd grows a concern for his sheep. Jesus asks Peter this question three times. In response to Peter’s initial “Yes, Lord! You know that I have great affection for you!” Jesus replies, “Then take care of my lambs.” (John 21:15) Our first concern must be, as it hasn’t been, the care of his lambs, his ‘little ones who have faith in him,’ ‘the least of his brothers and sisters.’ (Matthew 25:40, 45; 18:6, 10) In our Church these days there must be many who are troubled by Jesus’ word: “If anyone abuses one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a heavy boulder tied around his neck and be hurled into the deepest sea than to face the punishment he deserves!” (Matthew 18:6) That said, we cannot just wash our hands of this matter, blaming it all on those in leadership. For Jesus has commanded us, “Love each other just as much as I have loved you. For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:34-35) In his ‘Tend my lambs; Feed my sheep” is a call to care for one another, to look out for one another in love. We, too, are charged with care of his flock, and for this we are accountable. We are each called to hear his question as addressed to us personally: “Simon, son of John, do you burn with love for me more than these?” and in it hear him say to us: “Then take care of my lambs/feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) This is how we show our love, and show that we really do listen to his voice.
How are we to take care of his lambs and feed his sheep/what exactly is he calling us to do? In his parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus contrasts what he does with those who are not real shepherds (C.f.: Jeremiah 23:1-3; Ezekiel 34:1ff): “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down my life as a sacrifice for the sheep. But the worker who serves only for wages is not a real shepherd. Because he has no heart for the sheep, he will run away and abandon them when he sees the wolf coming. And then the wolf mauls the sheep, drags them off, and scatters them.” (John 10:11-13) In his last words to his disciples Jesus said, “The time has come when you will all be scattered, and each one of you will go your own way.” (John 16:32) Well, now we are more like scattered sheep. This happens from time to time, when the so-called shepherds behave like hired men. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 2:6-7)
In Jesus day, when he encountered those who were like lost sheep, we are told: ‘At the sight of them, his heart was filled with compassion, because they seemed like wandering sheep who had no shepherd. And so he set himself to teach them at some length.’ (Mark 6:34. C.f.: John 3:16f) Jesus found these people in ‘some lonely place’ (Mark 6:31. C.f.: Luke 15:4-6) — as many are today, and many do now recognise that there are now many who are spiritually hungry, but who do not know where to go to be nourished. In this story of the loaves and the fish, we are told that by evening the disciples were concerned that the people would be getting hungry, and they wanted Jesus to send them away ‘to the farms and villages round about’ where they could buy what they need. But Jesus said to them, “Give them something to eat yourselves.” (Mark 6:37) In these hungry and scattered sheep, we should hear Jesus saying to us: “Feed my lambs/feed my sheep.” (C.f.: John 10:16) Jesus taught the Word to them (Mark 2:2), the Word he had from his Father; this is how he fed them. (John 14:24; 16:15) It is this Word that he has given us, that we have kept, that we are to pass on. It will do us no good to protest that we do not know what to say (C.f.: Jeremiah 1:6), for in this story, Jesus takes the little they have and uses it to feed the multitude and still have some left over. (Mark 6:41-44) His Word to us is enough, enough for us to live on and enough for us to share; this we are called to do — “Feed my sheep,” he says.
Of course, not all of us are called to actually get up and proclaim, for there are other ways to teach — as St Benedict rightly points out: “Anyone who receives the name of abbot,” he says, “is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: He must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words.” (Mark 6:41-44) We may not all actively teach, but we all sure can give a good example — just through our hearing and keeping his Word, and this will be enough to feed especially his scattered sheep, and to tend his lambs, and this especially so if there is nothing else for them to eat in the wilderness place that is our world today. “Do you love me?” is a call, in the first place, to keep Jesus’ Word. “Feed my sheep,” then, is a call to let our lived example of how we understand his Word be what we willingly and consciously give to nourish those who are spiritually hungry, and to be what we offer to his little ones, those who have newly come to hear his Word and believe in him, to show them the way. For doing this, we have Jesus’ promise: “If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and will make our home with him.” What more could we hope for; what more could we want?
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO