"Feed my sheep" a penance?

A few days ago, my priest, during daily mass, was referencing the Gospel reading where Jesus asks Peter 3 times if Peter loves Him, and then says “Feed my sheep”, etc. My priest compared this passage to Confession, saying that Peter’s thrice avowal of love for Jesus was similar to us asking for forgiveness of our sins in the Confessional. And that when Jesus told Peter to feed and tend His sheep, that that was similar to a penance for Peter, instructing Peter what to do.

I have never heard this interpretation of this Scripture passage. Is this a possible Church understanding of this reading? Or is my priest really misinterpreting it?


I usually see Peter’s thrice avowal of love for Jesus as a way of making up for his thrice denial of Jesus earlier on.

May God bless you abundantly and forever! :slight_smile:

I would reflect on it some more. Please don’t go accusing your priest of not knowing Scripture. Just because we have not heard something yet, doesn’t mean there is not some to be gleaned from his homily. Feed my sheep is indeed a work of mercy. I’ve received works of mercy as penance before.

Be open to learning something, even if you disagree.

He is giving an analogy, I think it is a good idea, but I don’t think he was trying to say that Peter’s mission was simply a pence for his denial.

I agree.

Feeding and tending sheep was typically the job of the very young or old. It’s a very humble task.

3x each:
Peter denied Jesus
Peter said he loved Jesus
Jesus said feed my sheep, thus reaffirming via oral contract that Peter is head of the Church.

The purpose of penance is to repair the damage done in a relationship between man and God. Forgiveness has already been offered. It wouldn’t be right to look at the passage as something ‘new’ offered to Peter as reparation for his sinning against Jesus three times, rather – Peter was always supposed to feed God’s sheep, and Jesus is reaffirming Peter’s purpose and encouraging him to do as he predicted before Peter had fallen; “and when you have turned again (repented), strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:32.

In the sense that Jesus is saying “do as I bid you to do before now because you love me”; It has become a penance, but not a punishment for sin.

Jesus’ words also cause Great fear in Peter, and there is something missing in the translation, that can explain it; for twice Jesus asks “Do you LOVE (Agape) me?” and Peter answers diminutively, “I am friendly toward you [love in a brotherly way / (Philea)]”

Peter is unable to claim, in his poverty of having already abandoned the Lord at the crucifixion, to say that he loves him in the highest sense of the word.

But on the third time, Jesus does something that absolutely terrified Peter, and except that Jesus is Lord and must have had a good reason for doing it; seems almost cruel; for Jesus does not question whether Peter LOVES him in the highest sense of the word (Agape) – Rather Jesus questions whether Peter is even friendly toward him (Philea).
So there are two different kinds of love being discussed.

And notice Peter’s reaction, for if earlier Jesus had predicted Peter’s hypocrisy, Peter is now keenly aware that he doesn’t even know himself as well as Jesus knows him – and Peter, predictably panics ; Luke 32:33-35 for if Jesus now questions even Peter’s fondness of him, what could possibly be left?

But it is not for condemnation, rather – it is a holy fear that Jesus intends to place in Peter in order to prevent him from falling into sin again. The beginning of wisdom (a gifted relationship) is Awe/Fear of the Lord.

When a person leaves confession, they are to have a firm resolve to never sin that way again; and Peter took that firm resolve all the way to the cross when the Romans put Peter to death as well. Peter did indeed die with Christ, in the end.

If we go to the Greek, Jesus is actually commanding Peter to lead His Church. That has been my understanding. I think it’s really clear and I would be happy to post the Greek and the translation of the words used for “feed” and “tend.”

It’s also probably Peter’s reinstatement after denying Jesus three times.

I think it’s really interesting that both “agape” and “phileo” are used for “love,” but I’ve read that these two terms were synonyms and there is no difference. I think that’s what the USCCB claims in the NAB.

The USCCB is not the writer of the NAB bible, nor it’s footnotes. Those are written by independent theologians, and scholars, and are not binding church teaching in and of themselves. The USCCB merely hosts a copy of the NAB bible.

There is a very distinct difference between friendly love, and the highest form of love, Agape. A person who is merely a friend, doesn’t lay their life down for people they are merely friends with ; let alone for their enemies.

Romans 5:10 Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

Read what St. Paul says in context, for he talks specifically about Agape in Romans chapter 5, where it says “Love” in English.


If you trace out the NAB’s footnotes for John and the sheep, you’ll notice it goes indirectly to Romans 5, but the theologian does not reflect of the fact that enemies are not friends of any worth. So, when they glibly say “with apparently no difference in meaning” – they are talking about superficial appearances, and not the reality.

It’s not a well thought out footnote.

John records just a few sentence away from the note on ‘laying life down for a friend’ an incident where Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, but friends”
John 15:15

Their friendship was a rite of passage from a lower, or lesser office to a greater one.
For a friend knows what the Father is about, and the plan has been revealed to them.

Just so when Jesus says “Philea”, “friend”, that implies that Jesus is saying:
"Peter, do you know what the plan is? Feed my sheep! "

In shepherding, there are three stages of growth – and generally, different people are assigned to sheep of different ages. But in the passage where Jesus talks to Peter, there are only two kinds explicitly mentioned. Because there are three sayings, though, it is traditional to understand all three stages of sheep being Peter’s purview. He is, the ‘universal’ shepherd.

However, I find this especially interesting, for the denials were also structured as two, vs. three in Peter’s account (Mark is Peter’s scribe); “before the cock crows twice you will deny me thrice.” ( Mark 14:72 ).

So, I doubt that it is just a facet of the Greek language that there aren’t three distinct words for sheep, which causes there to be two mentions of one kind and only one of the other. The structure of the saying appears to be quite deliberately set up as two of one kind of thing, and one of another.

One thing is certain.

A penance from a priest is an order.

Jesus telling Peter to “feed his sheep” is an order.

Scripture has a literal and spiritual side. And the spiritual side of a passage may have more than one interpretive application. That is, it may be seen in several ways. Seeing it in one way doesn’t mean that the others are denied, but rather it is seen in one way to draw out a point.

So Father was fine in drawing out his point, tho there are other spiritual ways to see it too.

May God’s wind be at your back.


Thanks for that clarification. I wondered about the use of the Greek words for “love” and I always thought there was more to it than just synonyms. I did notice that two Greek words for “feed” and “tend” were used but I hadn’t thought about the significance of that. It makes more sense now.

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