"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" (Jn 21:15).
Not much attention is usually given to this line; more is naturally given to the passage that follows: the question repeated twice more, Peter's three replies, and the Lord's threefold directions ("Feed my sheep," etc.)
If the verse receives any attention, "these" is usually interpreted to mean "these disciples." I've always felt uncomfortable with that; it doesn't seem to me that Peter was chosen to be leader of the disciples because his love for the Lord was the greatest. After all, "the beloved disciple"—who alone of the Twelve accompanied Jesus to Golgotha —was sitting there too.
If Jesus did mean "these disciples," then perhaps He intended in part to humble Peter, without explicitly mentioning the denial. After all, Peter had declared that even if all the other disciples deserted Jesus, he wouldn't—which could be seen as a claim to love Him more than the others did. When Peter shows his humility and sorrow in his response, Jesus repeats the question twice more, but without the phrase "more than these".
Only once did I hear a homily in which "these" was proposed to refer to the fish. I remember thinking,"Uhhh...more than the fish? Come on, Peter wasn't that shallow."
But that interpretation, upon further reflection, is worth some consideration. Whether or not that's the primary meaning of the passage, this other reading can also bear spiritual fruits.
For most of us, there is no contest between fish and Jesus. But Peter was a fisherman. And he had just made a HUGE catch. This was his career, and those fish represented Success.
Plenty of people have trouble putting Jesus ahead of their career, ahead of success, ahead of prosperity, and security. Plenty of people don't love Jesus enough to put Him first, if doing so means jeopardizing one of these.
Even those of us who have put Him first in those areas do fall sometimes elsewhere. Any time we put off our prayer to watch a TV show, eat more than we should, any time we choose ease or pleasure instead of our duty, we are in fact failing to love Jesus more than these.
This is the essence of sin: putting something—anything—before God.
It could be discouraging to reflect on all the stupid things we have, for all practical purposes, loved more than God. But think how gently He treated Peter, who, in denying Jesus, loved his own life more than his Lord.
Peter has gone back to fishing. And Jesus repeats the miracle with which He started off His relationship with Peter: a tremendous catch of fish. Then He asks him if he loves Him more than these, which could be seen as asking, Will you make the same choice—to drop your nets and follow Me—this time? It's as if Jesus is giving Peter a chance to start over.Then He asks him the threefold question; the threefold answer is Peter's chance to reverse his threefold denial.
And He gives us the same chance to start over and to reaffirm our love, and to follow Him, even if it means we too shall be taken "where [we] do not wish to go" (Jn 21:18).
When you're reaching for, say, some chips that you really shouldn't have—and even though it seems so hard not to, and it's so easy to rationalize that it's no big deal—it can be helpful to ask yourself, Do I love Him more than these?
The little things do matter. It is being faithful in the little things that prepare us to be faithful in the larger.
Lent is around the corner. It's a perfect time to prove to Him (and ourselves) that we do love Him more than these—whatever "these" or "this" might be in our individual lives.
PS After reading this, a friend wrote me, saying that another possible reading is, "Do you love me more than these fish, who willingly gave up their lives for me?"