In the movie, The Bourne Legacy, Aaron Cross (a Jason Bourne successor) questions the things his agency requires him to do—questionable, distasteful things…things for which he has no explanation of why, only orders that he must. In response to his questions and sense of moral obligation, his mentor friend responds, “Do you know what a sin-eater is? We take the sin and bury it down deep so the rest of the world can live pure.”
Sin-eater. It’s not a common term anymore, but it was a common practice in the past in various parts of the world. According to Wikipedia:
The term sin-eater refers to a person who, through ritual means, would take on by means of food and drink the sins of a household, often because of a recent death, thus absolving the soul and allowing that person to rest in peace.
This ritual is said to have been practised in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until the late 19th or early 20th century in Wales and the adjoining Welsh Marches of Shropshireand Herefordshire, as well as certain portions of Appalachia in America (documented in the Foxfire cultural history series). Traditionally, it was performed by a beggar, and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person’s bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.
Essentially, a person would pawn their own soul for another’s peace and forgiveness of sins through a ritual much like the last supper. It’s an interesting concept. There are just a few problems with it in practice. First off, how can one sinful man pay for another man’s sins when he has his own to deal with? The “wages of sin is death”—so a man has to die for his own before he can pay for another man’s sins. The other big problem with this concept, as we see in the movie, is what it does to the sin-eater himself. What a burden to place upon a man!
In past times, it was often a beggar or slave—someone who was desperate who was forced into the position of sin-eater. That person was considered a social outcast. They were unclean…they were bearing the sins of other men. The sin-eater carries the burdens of others so that they can live in purity and innocence. He sacrifices himself for the good of others. It’s an ugly job. It’s not one many people would willingly take on.
Despite its flaws in execution, it’s a beautiful concept—one person who bears the sins of the masses, for the masses. One person pays the penalty of sin so that the others can be free from sin. Not a beautiful concept for the sin-eater himself, but if you are one of the masses, it’s awesome! You get to go free while someone else pays your debts! That’s quite a “get out of jail free” card!
What if this wasn’t just some folkloric tradition? What if someone did find a way to make it work, for real? What if the sin-eater wasn’t a beggar or sinner forced into it, but a willing participant? (He would have to be willing or the masses would face some awful guilt and responsibility for the sin-eater’s fate.) What if the sin-eater had no sins himself, so that he could pay the penalty for sins, not just in ritual, but in actual?
It is not just a tradition. It’s not just a ritual. It’s the actual fact of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. He is our sin-eater. He lived a sinless life and willingly took on the sins of the world as He died upon the cross. He paid the penalty of death in our place. Jesus instituted a tradition we call communion, a meal of bread and wine that we eat in remembrance of the body that was broken and the blood that was shed for us. We don’t have to eat our sins (literally or figuratively), but we do eat communion in remembrance of the One who did.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. I Corinthians 11:23-26
Questions for Discussion:
- Have you ever heard of a sin-eater before?
- How would you feel if you had to be the sin-eater?
- How do you think you would feel towards someone who was a sin-eater on your behalf? Would you feel differently about someone who was forced to be because of their lowly circumstances, versus someone who volunteered to be? Would you feel differently if that person was someone you considered far superior to yourself?
- Does the concept of the sin-eater make you think any differently about communion and/or about what Christ did for you on the cross?
- Have you ever accepted Christ’s offer to take on the punishment for your sins, to be your sin-eater?
-By Stacey Tuttle
Click here to see a collection of Quotes from Bourne Legacy.