When we binge watch true crime tales about con artists, it's good to remember that redemption is in reach of even people who seem hopelessly amoral.
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Our culture has an obsession with con artists, evident across the streaming platforms. Today, if you turn on Hulu, you’d see the series The Dropoutabout Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes; she now faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years after being found guilty of four counts of fraud in a federal fraud trial. On Apple TV+, actors Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway star in the series WeCrashedabout the dramatic rise and fall of the WeWork founders’ alleged shaky business dealings and questionable judgment. And then there’s Netflix, a streaming service swimming in scammer stories. Inventing Anna deals with Anna Delvey, who convinced the New York elite she was a German heiress; The Tinder Swindlertells the crushing story of a jet-setting mogul who woos and then cons women out of millions of dollars; and now Bad Vegandocuments how a successful restaurateur was scammed into handing over tens of thousands of dollars to her ex-husband and then caught up in a litany of other crimes.
The program algorithms must be demanding these stories of lies, crime, and scandal — and it’s no wonder why. The Tinder Swindler, for example, amassed 45.8 million hours viewed globally in one week alone — becoming the first documentary to lead Netflix’s film chart. If you are one of these millions of people who finds yourself binging on these shows, consider how you can bring your lens of faith to these true tales of crime.
Scripture is filled with stories of people who went from committing scandals to becoming saints. We’re a Church built on converts, and we as Catholics have a special grasp of every person’s potential for redemption no matter their past; even a past resembling Anna Delvey’s. Here is a list of some holy people who went from scammer to saint, so they can be an inspiration to us all.
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we learn of twin brothers Jacob and Esau — sons to Isaac and Rebekah. Esau is the older twin and, therefore, the birthright — which is essentially an inheritance and more prestigious position — is justly his. But Jacob, who is his mother’s favorite, tricks Esau into giving him this birthright of the firstborn. And in what’s considered Jacob’s great deceit, he then dupes his father Isaac into giving him the sacred blessing. It’s a striking and strange Scripture story that involves Jacob tricking Isaac into thinking he’s his hairy brother Esau by wearing goatskins. It’s heart-wrenching as well, as Esau has a devastating realization of this betrayal: “As he heard his father’s words, Esau burst into loud, bitter sobbing and said, ‘Father, bless me too!’” (Gen. 27:34). Jacob would go on to be a patriarch of the faith, the traditional ancestor of the people of Israel.
We don’t know much about St. Matthew’s life as a publican, or tax collector, prior to becoming an Apostle to Christ; but that job during that time period reveals a lot on its own. Venerable Fulton Sheen writes, “A publican was one who sold out his own people and collected taxes for the invader, retaining for himself a fairly large percentage.” St, Bede, a Doctor of the Church, writes this about St. Matthew’s conversion, “… he who used to rob his neighbor’s wealth, now leaves his own.” There is an understanding in Church history that Matthew probably robbed his neighbors and extorted others of as much money as possible. This makes Matthew’s decision to follow Christ all the more remarkable, as he left all things for the Lord.
Zacchaeus is a well-known example of a deceiver-turned-believer in the Bible. He was a chief tax collector and wealthy man who sought out Jesus in Jericho, even climbing up a sycamore tree. When face-to-face with Christ, Zacchaeus said, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over (Luke 19:8).” Those who witnessed this were shocked to see Jesus embrace a well-known sinner — but conversions can be quick and, as Jesus says after this exchange, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10).”
Also known as “the good thief,” St. Dismas, according to Church tradition, is the penitent thief hanging next to Christ on the Cross. We know he’s a criminal sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate alongside Jesus. While Jesus was unjustly sentenced to death, Dismas himself says he was “condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes (Luke 23:41).” He recognized Christ’s identity in the Crucifixion and in his most vulnerable moment, hanging on the cross, Dismas uttered, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42).” We then hear Jesus’ promise to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).” Venerable Fulton Sheen writes in Life of Christ, “It was the thief’s last prayer, perhaps even his first. He knocked once, sought once, asked once, dared everything, and found everything.” St. Dismas reveals the power of contrition and reminds us how close Christ is to criminals.
St. Andrew Avellino
St. Andrew is a 16th-century Italian saint who is known, in part, for being a repentant liar. Andrew was a canon lawyer and priest for the diocese of Naples who lied in court. His conscience then got the best of him when, tradition holds, his eyes came across the Scripture verse “a lying mouth destroys the soul (Wisdom 1:11).” He felt deep remorse and renounced his position, giving up the practice of law. St. Andrew Avellino would go on to reform a convent, become a sought-out preacher, and serve as a trusted adviser to then-Bishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo.
While the trending television shows reveal how money and power can corrupt and create con-artists, Scripture and these saints are great reminders of Christ’s mercy and love — no matter the extent of someone’s lies, thefts, and deceits.