What about him? (part 1)

Looking at others and wondering where we stand by comparison: we all play the game. To some extent, it’s our nature.

We’re social beings. When we’re first born, we can’t survive on our own. If someone doesn’t care for us, we die. And the people who take care of us don’t just feed and clothe us. They teach us what it means to be human, to love, to depend on others and to be dependable in turn. They immerse in a world of values and priorities by which we measure ourselves.

That’s not to say that our caretakers always do as well by us as they could. But we have no choice: from cradle to grave, we are formed in the company of others.

This is what I’m reminded of when I read Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 21. Jesus, in a sense, has given Peter a gracious opportunity to “take back” his three denials. In their place, Peter has made a threefold confession of love, resulting a thrice-repeated commission to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. That commitment will eventually cost Peter his life — but ironically, this will fulfill Peter’s earlier, premature claim that he was ready to die for Jesus.

“Follow me!” Jesus commanded Peter, as if the conversation were finished. As I imagine it, they continued walking in silence along the beach. At some point, however — perhaps mere seconds later — Peter, with characteristic restlessness, glanced behind him:

Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. This was the one who had leaned against Jesus at the meal and asked him, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” When Peter saw this disciple, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:20-21, CEB)

Jesus’ response sounds almost testy: “If I want him to remain until I come, what difference does that make to you? You must follow me” (vs. 22).

John tells us nothing about why Peter asked his question, nor what the question meant. Having just been told that his own earthly story would end in crucifixion, Peter may have wanted to know the fate of the beloved disciple. Would this man have to die too?

Was there a friendly rivalry between the disciples? John reminds us that the beloved disciple was the one closest to Jesus at the Last Supper, the one who asked Jesus the identity of his betrayer. But we should also remember that the question was asked at Peter’s instigation (John 13:21-25), which suggests at least the kind of friendship that would allow them to be co-conspirators. And if the beloved disciple is in fact John himself (as many assume), then both men were part of the gang of three fishermen closest to Jesus: Peter, James, and John.

Peter, then, may be asking out of mostly friendly motives. But the terseness of Jesus’ answer — which boils down to “Peter, it’s none of your business!” — suggests that something more is amiss. We’ll explore that possibility in Sunday’s post.