The Sin Eater
By Dr. Mickey Anders
In the Newberry Award winning book by Ruth White entitled Belle Prater’s Boy, there is a character who is an old blind man named Blind Benny. He lived above the hardware store and Gypsy and Woodrow, the main characters of the book, would sometimes hear him at night singing as he walked around town.
One night Woodrow and Gypsy joined Blind Benny, and he told them his story. He was born blind in a small town in the hills of Kentucky. When he was twelve both parents died and he had nobody to care for him. That’s how he became the town’s “sin eater.”
There was an unusual tradition in his small town. When a person died, people brought food and spread out it out as a banquet on top of the casket during the wake. They believed that all the dead person’s sins went into the food. Then they picked someone in town, usually someone pretty desperate, to be the sin eater. Whenever there was a death they called the sin eater to the wake to eat the food. It was the sin eater’s job to eat the food and take the person’s sins into himself so that the dead person could go to heaven clean and free.
For fifteen years Blind Benny was the sin eater of that town. He was shunned and scorned by the townspeople because he had all those sins inside him which he had eaten.
But Blind Benny then began to worry. What would happen when he died? Who would eat his sins? Nobody. Because nobody would take the chance of eating all the sin eater’s sins.
One day Amos Leemaster, Gypsy’s dad, met Blind Benny and told him that this was all superstitious nonsense. Then he offered him a way out. He gave him a room over his hardware store where Blind Benny would have plenty to eat. “You won’t ever have to eat sins again!” he told him. And Blind Benny was given a new life. (1)
Like Amos Leemaster, the writer of Hebrews says, “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” The problem with the sacrificial system of the Hebrews was that it didn’t really work and after Jesus it was obsolete. That system has been superceded by a higher, better, and perfect system in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus had bridged the gap between the Creator and the creature.
Jesus comes to us with a New Covenant saying, “You won’t have to be a sin eater ever again!” Now there is no reason to continue to offer a sin-offering sacrifice. We no longer have to worry about our relationship with God, because God in Christ has made us righteous.
Because we no longer have to focus on ritual purification of sins, we can now focus on a life of service to others. The sanctuary is no longer a place where only the high priest can go once a year, now every believer enters into God’s presence because of the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood.
Last Thursday, I taught the book of Hebrews in my New Testament class at Pikeville College. It is not easy to explain the relationship of many passages in Hebrews to the Platonic philosophy popular at the time.
However, I had just finished reading a fascinating book entitled The Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin, so I gave a lecture entitled “The book of Hebrews and the movie The Matrix.” I explained that the movie describes a parallel universe much like that described in Hebrews. Thomas Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, lives in two worlds. The first is a virtual reality world created by complex computer programs; the other is the world of the real. Almost all the philosophers mentioned in the book saw obvious parallels to Socrates’ famous analogy of the cave and to Descartes’ questioning of the world of the senses. So I tried to capture the attention of the students with references to The Matrix and then bring in the philosophical and theological angles.
The book of Hebrews goes to such lengths to show that Jesus was the ultimate high priest who entered the ” more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands,” that is the real tabernacle in heaven. There he made the real sacrifice for sins that superseded the inferior sacrifices made by human high priests here in the shadow world. Not shedding the blood of goats and animals but shedding his own blood instead, Jesus became the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
After explaining his lofty theology, the writer turns to a paragraph of exhortation. His writing almost sounds like formal resolutions sometimes made in political assemblies. He starts with the “whereas” statements, and then turns to the “therefore” statements.
He concludes his “whereas” statements in verse 18 saying, “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.” Then he turns to the exhortation in verse 19 saying, “Therefore, brothers…”
In this exhortation, he starts with three assurances. The first is the assurance that we should have confidence before God. He says, “Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus….”
God does not want us to cower in fear every time we think of God. Instead, we are to have confidence to enter God’s presence. Jesus said we are not to be slaves, filled with fear, but friends.
John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 15:14 You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you. 15:15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends…”
Friends do not have fear as the basis of relations, but love. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”
The second assurance the author of Hebrews gives is the assurance of faith in verse 22. “Let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water.”
The third assurance is that of unwavering hope in verse 23. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful.”
Then the writer turns to three ways in which we are to express our faith outwardly.
First, we are to express our faith by good and loving deeds. Verse 24 says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works….”
In the book of Acts, Peter describes the message about Jesus this way: “The word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ—… who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:36-38). If Jesus “went about doing good,” so should we.
This is the strong emphasis of the book of James. It seems that many people had taken Paul’s emphasis on faith alone and abused the concept. They were suggesting that one could have faith in Jesus and then live any way at all. But James gives the necessary correction by saying that we need faith and works.
At one point James says, “Yes, a man will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead (James 2:18-19, 26).
Secondly, we are to express our faith by meeting together, presumably in worship. Verse 25 says, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is….” Too many of us are guilty on this account. We should never neglect the opportunity to meet together.
One church member wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. “I’ve gone for 30 years now,” he wrote, “and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.”
This started a real controversy in the “Letters to the Editor” column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher:
“I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this: They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!”
Sometimes when we have had a big meal, perhaps like those we will have this week for Thanksgiving, we may leave the table thinking we will never need to eat again. But in a few hours, we find ourselves back at the table.
The same should be true of us spiritually. We need to regularly come to worship in this place so that our souls can be nourished with the Bread of Life.
Finally, we are to express our faith by encouraging one another. Verse 25 says, “But encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The writer of Hebrews points to real forgiveness, not some inadequate ritual trying to cover our sins, not some sacrifice of animals supposed transfer our sins, but the real forgiveness made by the real high priest in the real heavenly sanctuary. When we have found such real forgiveness we will be freed to live our lives with faith, hope and love.
There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm. And he was given a slingshot to play with out in the woods. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit the target. And getting a little discouraged; he headed back to dinner.
As he was walking back, he saw Grandma’s pet duck. Just out of impulse, he let fly, hit the duck square in the head and killed it. He was shocked and grieved.
In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.
After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today, didn’t you, Johnny?” And then she whispered to him, “Remember, the duck?”
So Johnny did the dishes.
Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” But Sally smiled and said, “Well, that’s all right because Johnny told me he wanted to help.” And she whispered again, “Remember, the duck?”
So Sally went fishing, and Johnny stayed.
After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, he finally couldn’t stand it any longer. He came to Grandma and confessed that he killed the duck. She knelt down, gave him a hug and said, “Sweetheart, I know. You see, I was standing at the window, and I saw the whole thing. But because I love you, I forgave you.
“But I was just wondering how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.” (2)
Jesus Christ is like the Grandma, standing at the window. He sees all our sins, but because he had made the ultimate sacrifice with his blood, we can have forgiveness. Christ is the sin eater who has taken care of all our sins.
1) Ruth White, Belle Prater’s Boy (Farrar Straus Giroux), as told by Stephen Shoemaker
2) Cited in Vanguard Magazine Online, www.vanguardmag.com.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.