You Are Love

In one of the more puzzling exchanges in the New Testament, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, and three times Peter replies that he does. It is clear from Peter’s mounting consternation that he doesn’t understand why his master keeps harping on the question. Does Jesus have some reason to doubt him? But as it happens, Peter is not answering the question that Jesus has asked – something that is lost in English translations of the passage from the Gospel of St. John. When Jesus first asks the question he uses the Greek verb agapao for love, which has a connotation quite different from the word (phileo) that Peter gives in reply.

Phileo would normally be used for the love of a friend or family member, which is perfectly appropriate in this instance. But that is not what Jesus has asked. Agapeo (n. agape), has no exact English equivalent. Its meaning is usally given as unconditional or selfless love, which throws an entriely different light on the question. Jesus is not asking whether his friend has warm feelings for him, at least not until the third time, when he pointedly takes things down a notch and uses phileo rather than agapao.

Because English translations make no distinction between these two kinds of love, we are apt to misunderstand when Jesus commands us to love (agapao) our neighbor as ourselves. We often think this means we should have warm feelings toward our neighbor, even if he happens to be a jerk. Since we may not not think kindly of our neighbor, we are put in the position of denying our true feelings toward him or becoming a hypocrite.

What does it mean to love unconditionally? We come closest perhaps in the love we have for our own children, which does not depend on whether they are smart, well-behaved or good-looking. However, we are asked to do the same for our neighbor’s children. This is the kind of love that we imagine God has for us, as in this verse from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved (agapao) the world...” To love the world and everything in it is to love without object; indeed, this kind of love makes no distinction between subject and object. This is why we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the end, love is not what we do but what we are.

John 21:15-17
John 3:16

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