The Soldier, the Athlete and the Farmer

From Wikimedia Commons
From Wikimedia Commons

St. Demetrios the Myrrh-streaming / Sixth Sunday of Luke, October 26, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In today’s epistle reading from Second Timothy, which is designated for the feast today of St. Demetrios, St. Paul gives us three images of what it means to live life as a Christian: the soldier, the athlete and the farmer. I love these three images, not just because they are earthy and probably easier to relate to for most people than images of kings and clerics and so forth, but also because they are universal throughout the history of mankind.

We have always had soldiers, athletes and farmers, and we have all those experiences represented right here in this room. And even if you have never been one of those three things, you probably have one or more of those in your family. So these are people we know. We know soldiers and other military people. We know people who play sports. We know farmers or at least know some gardeners. And we certainly all benefit from the work these people do! So let’s talk about these three as metaphors for the spiritual life.

Regarding the soldier, Paul says this: “No soldier on service entangles himself in the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enrolled him as a soldier.” The soldier casts off the cares of this world in order that he may focus on life in the service. Now, sometimes, this is to the detriment of family and friends and home—those who are fighting in the military are often a long way from home and don’t see their wives or children or others for a long time. And this can sometimes be the case in the spiritual life—we may need to set aside certain relationships if they get in the way of our salvation. That doesn’t usually happen, thank God, but we have to be willing to do that.

Beyond that, the soldier has to disentangle himself from “the affairs of this life”—he has to keep his priorities straight. Yes, he’s still got to pay the bills and buy the groceries, etc., but if he allows possessions to take over, he won’t be able to focus on the battle. And his commanding officer will notice. As Paul says, the soldier has to “please him who enrolled him as a soldier.” And we were “enrolled” as soldiers by Christ; he’s the one we have to please. He’s our commanding officer.

Those enlisted into Christ’s army are no longer civilians, so they can no longer behave as secular people, making material gain their primary concern. Rather, they constantly train and exercise their spiritual muscles, putting on spiritual weapons and armor. They do this by prayer, fasting, repenting of our sins, receiving the sacraments frequently, and coming to be trained in spiritual life in the divine services of the Church.

Thinking about training and exercise makes us also think of the athlete. Paul has this to say about athletes: “And if someone also contends in the games, he is not crowned, unless he has contended lawfully.” Every athlete knows he has to play by the rules. If you don’t play by the rules, you can get penalized or, worst of all, thrown out of the game.

This is serious for Christians—there are rules to this contest of spiritual life. A spiritual athlete can’t make up his own rules for the contest. It is God Who has set the rules for this contest, and we find those rules in Scripture, in the teachings of the Church in the liturgical texts and the rulings of the Ecumenical Councils, along with the guidance of our own father-confessor who applies these teachings.

Too many of us—myself included—fall into the temptation of thinking that we can set our own rules. I will participate in church services or in fasting or in giving or in serving in church the amount that I decide for myself. It does not matter what is needed or what God says in the Scripture or what He says through the other holy texts of the Church or what He says through my father-confessor. Too many of us act like we’re both the star athlete and the coach, when we may not hardly even be bench-sitters! But even the star athlete has to play by the rules, and a real star also knows he’s got to follow the coach.

And the crown that the athlete receives at the end of the contest is eternal life, salvation in Christ, the glory of God Himself! Jesus said to His Father that He was giving His own glory, the glory He had received from the Father, to those who were following Him (John 17). This is the crown of glory that is given only to those spiritual athletes who contest according to the rules, according to the direction given by the coach. That’s the only way to get the crown. It’s a lot of work, but we’re talking about our eternal destiny here! There are no shortcuts. It’s got to be by the rules.

And finally, thinking about hard work, it’s natural that Paul wants us to think about farmers. He says this: “The husbandman who labors must be the first to partake of the fruits.” Husbandman is a rather old-fashioned English term for “farmer,” but it means basically the same thing, at least literally. As a term for a farmer, it emphasizes the personal sense of care and ownership that needs to be brought to what is being cared for. The oldest uses of husbandman and even husband in English emphasize a free man who has his own household or his own land.

Thus, as we hear Paul’s words translated into English, we hear not only the basic sense which is in the Greek—a farmer who plows his fields—but we also hear about someone who is free and who has a personal stake in what is being cultivated. And so it makes sense for us when Paul says that “the husbandman who labors must be the first to partake of the fruits.” Those who are spiritual have an ownership over themselves, over their lives and the fruits of their labors. They are all gifts, of course, but nevertheless, they have been given by God for our own.

What this means is that we cannot depend on someone else to do the labor necessary to cultivate our spiritual fields. Yes, other people participate and may make it easier for us to be fruitful, and yes, without God we can do nothing at all, but in the end, the fruit is our own responsibility. Each of us has a critical, indispensable role in seeing to it that what is placed in the gardens of our souls grows to fruition. If we do not do the hard work of tilling, planting, watering, and nurturing our spiritual gardens and fields, then we cannot expect any fruit. And we also cannot expect to be fed by the fruits of others’ labors. Yes, they may provide us with seeds and other help, but just as the farmer who does not work does not eat, so it is true with our spiritual labors.

When people look at us, do they see Christians who like soldiers have put off the concerns of this world in order to focus on being warriors of Christ, fighting the battle for their souls and for the souls of others in order to please their Commander?

Do they see spiritual athletes, who run the race according to the rules and not according to our own preferences, putting in the training and the exercise and diet needed for this great contest, pressing earnestly forward for the crown of glory, the crown of immortality?

And do they see genuinely hardworking farmers who cultivate spiritual crops, husbandmen with dirty, callused hands and tough, sinewy limbs who care for what is their own so that they may partake of the fruit of their labors?

All of these images are active and dynamic. These are strong, healthy images of whole, healthy people who are being changed by Christ. And these are all people we can relate to, people we know—the soldier, the athlete and the farmer. May God grant us to make these metaphors truly apply to our own spiritual lives.

To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. Thanks Father for your insight I enjoy reading your blog and listening to your podcasts on ancient faith.

  2. Superb and insightful work which is encouraging, thought provoking, and worthy of much reflection.

    Fr John

  3. Father Bless! All the aforementioned jobs are hard work if done correctly. There are no shortcuts. Spirituality, esp. Orthodox, is the same way. Although I often think it’s the hardest of all but reaps the greatest benefits. Thanks again for your insights!

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