Week of 6 May, 2019

Peter was grieved because [Jesus] said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”

~ John 21:17 ~

Are you weak enough to lead?

As we move into the week of the General Election the Gospel reading of the Third Sunday of Easter seems more than usually appropriate. The final chapter of the Gospel of John is shot through with the theme of failure, forgiveness and a new beginning.

The context of the story – Simon Peter and some disciples going fishing – brilliantly echoes a return to the beginning: the calling of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Even the incident with the re-casting of the nets and the bumper catch of fish mirrors the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

But things have changed. These ‘fishers of men’ had abandoned Jesus during the Passion. Instead of standing with him they went into hiding. The ‘nets’, a symbol of the mission, were broken, shredded by their fear. And the leader of the disciples Simon Peter had even denied knowing Jesus three times before a cockerel had crowed the dawn of Good Friday.

In this story, however, in the early hours before dawn we see that once again they catch a load of fish – and the net does not break. This foreshadows what will happen: that from this group of failed disciples too weak to stand with Jesus in his passion something new would emerge. The Risen Christ renews his relationship with them – reconciles with them – and sends them forth to do the job he’d originally given them.

Even more powerful and moving is Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter. Three times he asks him “Do you love me?” and tells him to lead, to “Feed my sheep”.  I am struck by Peter’s response, so human – all too human.

We can only guess Peter’s emotions, a mixture of guilt at betraying Jesus, love for Jesus, and a kind of anxiety about having to speak to someone he has so shamefully betrayed. (I think we can best imagine it as akin to the feeling one has facing someone we have loved deeply and then hurt through our own mixture of stupidity and fear).

But Jesus is not the angry aggrieved lover trying to make us squirm. Jesus’ threefold question to Peter is in fact an undoing, an unbinding of the threefold denial that has placed Peter in the depths of guilt and despair. It is the undoing of Peter’s self-imposed curse.

And in calling him to lead once more, it is Jesus saying to Peter: “You now know how you are to lead. You know that you are weak, that you have failed dismally. But though you are a failure – no, because in fact you are a failure – I choose you to lead my people. Because as one who has learnt failure, I want you to lead my people with humility. Lead my people knowing that you are a forgiven sinner. Lead my people with the compassion I have shown you.”

Dear brothers and sisters who are elected to office this week, whatever your religious beliefs, please take note. Lead South Africa with humility, knowing your limitations. Lead with compassion.

Who knows? Maybe you too will hear, as I think Peter must have head at that moment, a cockerel crowing a new dawn.


Father, Help me to know my own weaknesses and blindspots. Help me to know where I am tempted so that I can call on you to be my strength. I ask the Holy Spirit to always guide my conscience and to help me to always make the right decisions. I am weak without You, my God. But with You, I know that I can be the leader Your people deserve. Give me the humility to be a servant and the courage to always serve the Common Good. Father, I pray for peace this week, I pray for wisdom for the voters, and I pray that I might always accept Your Will in my life. Help me always to learn from you, so that I might model my life on yours: a life offered in service for the poorest and weakest in our great land. Amen.


Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by and

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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