Do you love me?
The three verbs used in the Gospels to express "love" are: epithyméo, philéo and agapáo.
Epithyméo (Matthew 5:28), “to crave, to desire, to love passionately, to be infatuated,” is not semantically different from the Greek verb eráo, which indicates love through desire, passion, driven by desire or pleasures' seduction. Philéo, “to befriend, to be attached, to wish well, to treat kindly, to welcome a guest in a loving way, to take care of someone else," is the verb dedicated to love between friends. It refers to an interpersonal relationship based on equality, on affinity within a community, a town, a race. Indeed the adjective philós means “darling” and it is used for the relationship between parents and children or between siblings. It is the verb of tenderness, of familiarity. Agapáo, lastly, indicates utter predilection, gratuitous love without expectations or demands, the fruit of free choice, a way of being, of living. The verb agapào, used to refer to the reciprocal love between a man and a woman, indicates, more than anything else, a intimate and deep relationship with God. It is a kind of love that comes from above and is addressed upwards. It pervades all of chapter 17 of the Gospel of John: I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them: it is the founding verb of the love's procedure: As the Father loves me, so I also love you (John 15: 9); love one another (John 15: 17).
In the question that the risen Lord asks Peter in today's Gospel, the difference between philèo and agapào appears particularly clear (a difference not recognized by the ancient Greeks). For three times Jesus asks: Do you love me? He used the verb agapáo the first and second times, and the verb philèo the third and last one.
Jesus said to Simon Peter: «Simon, son of John, do you love me [Greek: agapào] more than these?» He said to him «Yes, Lord, you know that I love you [Greek: philèo]». He said to him: «Feed my lambs». He said to him a second time: «Simon, son of John, do you love me [Greek: agapào] more than these?» He said to him : «Yes, Lord, you know that I love you [Greek: philèo]». He said to him the third time: «Simon, son of John, do you love me [Greek: philèo]?» The third time Jesus used the verb philèo because, before the Pentecost, before the descent of the Paraclete Spirit, every relationship-bond of love that the apostles knew was still related to blood lines, according to group or family affinities, as the verb philèo implies. Only after the Pentecost, little by little, the apostles will be able to open their hearts to the universal value of agàpe.
Do you love me? Jesus is asking you, and he is really not asking you anything else, and he never asks you anything else. He is asking you it before anything else, at the end of everything, and above everything else. Do you love me? He asks you as soon as you meet Him and even when you are running away angry, when you are weeping alone and when you are asking for forgiveness and peace. Do you love me? He asks you when you are feeling safe within your compromises, or betrayed by everyone, or disappointed by your illusions. Do you love me? Jesus asked you the first time you met Him and then when you decided to follow and announce him. He asks you in each moment of solitude and fear, at every fall and infidelity, at every step, be it calm or serene, at every occasion of peace and joy. When our earthly bonds will end, when the chains of our training are broken, when our interior revolts will be pacified, when all wounds received and inflicted will be melted in forgiveness, when challenges are put aside and ambitions are emptied, when we stop breathing and we cross the bridge towards a life without end, He will be beside us and will tenderly ask, in the present tense, always eternally in the present tense: Do you love me?