THEOLOGY AT THE MOVIES: THE STING
The Sting has got one of the classiest endings in film, and it earned a Best Picture Oscar in 1973. Audiences enjoyed seeing Paul Newman and Robert Redford pair up again after their successful partnership in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Johnny Hooker is a two-bit con man who accidentally swindles a mob runner out of five grand. Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) takes his revenge by ordering the assassination of Hooker’s partner, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). Angry and hot for revenge, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman), who agrees to help lift a half million dollars from the New York crime boss.
But as they consider the scheme, Gondorff has a prescient observation about revenge. He eyes Redford skeptically. “Just don’t want a hothead looking to get even coming back halfway through sayin’ it ain’t enough. Cause it’s all we’re gonna get.”
In other words, hoping to “balance the scales” in a universe of sin and tit-for-tat is a fool’s errand. You can’t do it. There’s no way to gain monetary satisfaction when your best friend’s been tossed from a second-story balcony.
Henry Gondorff goes on to acknowledge that a thirst to get even is a powerful motivator. “Do you think we can get some guys together?” Hooker asks hopefully. This kind of “big con,” a massive horse-racing scheme, will take quite an army of street hustlers. His mentor says bluntly: “After what happened to Luther, I don’t think I can get more than two, three hundred guys.”
The story unfolds with a myriad of plot twists, and I won’t give away any of the slick maneuvers. Suffice it to say that, yes indeed, Robert Shaw is suckered right out of his suitcase stuffed with $500,000 as the final credits roll. But as Newman and Redford prepare to part ways, they both acknowledge that revenge is never a complete and satisfying treat.
“Well, kid, you beat him,” Newman beams.
Redford cocks his head, savoring the joy of besting his enemy. Then acknowledges: “You’re right. It’s not enough.” Then a laugh. “But it’s close!”
So it’s not a perfect movie sermon. Because sure, it’s delicious to see Robert Shaw being taken for $15,000 in his own rigged poker game. And then the suitcase with all his bank’s skimmed profits. Half a mil is a sweet load of sugar in 1936 Chicago.
Theologically, though, the Bible plainly tells us that “you can’t get there from here.” Rom. 12:19: Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge: I will repay,” says the Lord. Leaving the business of score-settling to the Lord is a biblical mandate, buttressed by the human reality that we simply cannot get even. We can’t balance the scales. What would you or I ever do to “fix” the Holocaust? Or get full satisfaction for 9/11 and those hijackers? Let along that jerk who stole your promotion at the office?
I’ll get into the even better cinema “revenge” moment in another essay, but Sister Helen Prejean’s brilliant Dead Man Walking painstakingly describes how the victims of violent crime absolutely cannot recover emotionally by seeking vengeance. A grieving mom or widow can wait twenty years to see their beloved’s killer strapped down to a lethal injection gurney. They watch the poison cocktail flow. They see the murderer slowly expire and stop twitching. They watch him die!! And it’s not enough. She writes how it’s like having sand slip through your fingers. You try to clench your fist, preserve your hot, murderous hate . . . and it’s not enough. You can’t grasp it or keep it real.
Whimsical Scott Joplin piano music plays as Robert Redford slowly walked out of The Sting still in his tux, the fake blood all over his shirt, and with a handsome half-smile on his face. But a half smile is all it can ever be when we try to fix the greedy sins of others all by ourselves.
Take heart in how “The Message” paraphrase puts it. Dear friends, never take revenge but turn your hostility over to God. The Scriptures make it clear: “I will see that justice is done. I WILL TAKE CARE OF IT,” says the Lord.