“Lord, what about this man?”

Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter
During class Sunday night, I went through the resurrection accounts with my students, and spent some time on the three appearances of Christ to the apostles in John. These are enigmatic passages which some consider late additions, and one of the most unusual is this exchange between St. Peter and the risen Christ in John 21:21-23:

21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This moment, which follows Christ’s prediction of Peter’s martyrdom, shows the special relationship among Jesus, St. John, and Peter. Pointing to John, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” What does he expect Jesus to say? Is he asking if John, too, shall attain the martyr’s crown? Or is he wondering what role John will play in the Church that will be shepherded by Peter after the ascension of the Lord? Jesus’ answer is enigmatic: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

Obviously, the members of the Johannine community found it enigmatic as well, since it led to a rumor that John would not die until the Second Coming. (John 21:23) In his final Tractate on John, St. Augustine includes a lengthy digression about a legend that claimed John was not dead, but had merely laid down in his tomb to await the Second Coming, and the earth above his tomb could still be seen moving with the rising and falling of his breath. [1] Augustine dismisses this idea, but the effort he takes to debunk it indicates the legend was contemporary in the Johannine community as late as the 4th century. Clearly, this is a passage that left many puzzled, so let us work through several possible interpretations.

Coming as it does after an affirmation of Petrine primacy (John 20:15-20), the question can be read as an inquiry about the leadership role of John. It is as though Peter is asking, If I am to feed your sheep, what shall John do? Will he have a share in the leadership of the Church. [2] Peter wants John to play a part in his ministry, but Jesus says that such a thing is not for Peter to decide.[3]

Peter also represents the Church, for “petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ.”[4] The Church remains until Jesus comes, but the Petrine office shall endure and pass from apostle to apostle. Thus, even though “Peter” will pass from this earth, the rock on which his office is built shall continue through the ages. This is what Christ means when he says, “Follow me.”[5]

The Brick Testament, John 21:22, c. Brendan Powell Smith

Perhaps Peter is even offering his office to John, who he knows is uniquely beloved by Christ.[6] In saying “what about this man” he is saying, “Is not your Beloved Disciple more worthy than I, who denied you, to lead your Church and suffer the same death as you?” It can be seen as an act of deference or generosity.

Since the question follows the prediction of Peter’s death, it is of course natural to assume that Peter is asking if John will also die for Christ. In this question he is showing concern for the fate of his friend.[7] Death on the cross is not to be John’s fate, however. He must remain as a witness to Christ, both in life and in his Gospel. [8] Indeed, we can even say that “his longevity might stand in the place of martyrdom, for John greatly desired to die, that he might enjoy Christ, saying as he did at the end of the Apocalypse, Come, Lord Jesus.”[9]

Finally, we must turn to the core distinction between John and Peter, which is defined by the split between the contemplative life (John) and the active life (Peter).[10] The key words thus become “remain” and “follow”. The one who remains is the one who lives a life pondering the words and deeds of the Lord. The one who follows is the one conforms his life to Christ even unto death.[11] One state is not better than the other, nor is one kind of love superior to another.[12]

The person who remains to live a life contemplating the Lord shall only have completion when the Lord “returns”. That return doesn’t have to be at the end of time, as some followers of John mistakenly assumed, but can merely be at the end of John’s life. [13]The Lord “returns” for John upon his death, when he takes his soul unto heaven.

John, revealed by his Gospel and letters to be a man of profound thought, had a different role than Peter, who is depicted as a man of action, often rash in word and deed. This is what Augustine means when he says, “Let perfected action, informed by the example of my passion, follow me; but let contemplation only begun remain [so] till I come, to be perfected when I come.”[14] This is the final duality presented in John’s gospel, which is full of dualities. In his final lines, John uses his own life to demonstrate the contemplative/active split present in the life of the Church.

Citations after the jump.

[1] St. Augustine, Tractates on John 124, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701124.htm.
[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John 21, Lecture 5, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/John21.htm.
[3] Cornelius a Lapide The Great Biblical Commentary Of Cornelius À Lapide, http://www.catholicapologetics.info/scripture/newtestament/21john.htm
[4] St. Augustine, ibid.
[5] Lapide, ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] St. Thomas, ibid.
[8] Lapide, ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] St. Thomas, ibid.
[11] St. Augustine, ibid.
[12] St. Thomas, ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] St. Augustine, ibid.