For three days, men ride from Bisbee to Contention, Arizona to deliver their prisoner, Ben Wade, to the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will die by hanging.
“He was crucified, dead and buried; the third day He arose from the dead.”
Three threes make for some kind of movie.
First there was a son named Benjamin Wade. When his mother failed to return, young Benjamin, like Jacobâ€™s son Benjamin, was left motherless. All he had was the Bible she left him. (Later, when one of his captorâ€™s calls his mother a whore, Benjamin kills him because: “Even bad men love their mamas.”)
And bad Benjamin Wade is. Now a legendary outlaw, he and his gang have just robbed an armed stage coach carrying the Southern Pacific Railroads payroll. They kill everyone onboard except a Pinkerton guard.
Benâ€™s motto seems to be the first half of Proverbs 21:2, which he quotes: “All a man’s ways seem right to him.â€ He has justified a lifetime accumulating all the material things this world has to offer. He is a prince of the Present Evil Age. Perhaps he quotes Solomon because he identifies with Solomonâ€™s justification for his life in Ecclesiastes, or because, like Wadeâ€™s prostitute mother, Solomonâ€™s mother Bathsheba, had also been â€œcaught in adultery.â€
But unlike Solomon, Benjamin Wade has declared war on The Kingdom of God, represented by the Bible left to him by his mother. His pistolsâ€™ bear the crucifix, ironic symbols of the Savior who failed his mother. Perhaps he blames the people of Godâ€™s Kingdom for â€œstoningâ€ her when caught, preventing her from returning to him at the train station.
Then there is William Evans, the son of Alice and Daniel Evans, the failing cattle rancher. Dan fears he has lost the confidence of both Alice and Will who doubt he can make the ranch work. He says, â€œIâ€™m tired of the boys going hungry, tired of the way they look at me, and tired of the way that you donâ€™tâ€¦Iâ€™ve been standing on one leg for three years waiting for God to do me a favor, and he ainâ€™t.â€
Dan is a Civil War veteran with a wooden leg, which may tie him to the prophet Daniel whose book introduces the idea of â€œfeet of clayâ€- a metaphor for a weak point in an otherwise strong object. And that metaphor sums up this frontier Daniel:Â a noble but broken man (physically and emotionally) who has become a gelded failure when his barn is burned in an act of arson, intended to scare him into abandoning his land. “No one can think less of me,” he says sorrowfully.
The biblical Daniel was a prophet of the Age to Come, the Kingdom of God, in which this Evans family seeks to live and raise their sons. However, so far, the Arizona Daniel has not lived up to the Biblical Danielâ€™s reputation for inspiring faith through courage and dedication to God when confronted by pagan forces of The Present Evil Age.
But God gives Daniel Evans another chance for redemption. Dan and his two sons find the wounded Pinkerton man and take him to Bisbee, Arizona to find a doctor. Not coincidentally, Ben Wade is also in town, but without his gang. Dan distracts Ben Wade, who is captured without a shot being fired.
When the railroad representative asks for paid volunteers to join the Pinkertonâ€™s posse to take Wade to the train station in the town of Contention three days away, the financially desperate Daniel Evans signs onÂ to save his farm with the $200 he will be paid if successful. Even then his wife scolds him for making a financial decision without consulting herâ€””we’re supposed to make decisions together”- revealing just how emasculated Dan has become, a rancher in the Old West who needs to ask his wife’s permission to spend his money as he sees fit. His son William disdains him for it. I’ll never walk in your path, he tells him.
On the way to Contention, Daniel Evans brings Ben Wade to his home for dinner. Once there the second half of Proverbs 21:2,-â€œbut the Lord weighs the heart.” is resurrected, as the Lord begins to â€weighâ€ (Wade) Benâ€™s heart once he steps into the home of the kind of family he always wanted but was denied, into the home he fantasized while waiting for three days for his motherâ€™sÂ return.
The experience of dinner with a Christian family begins to germinate the seeds of the Kingdom of God planted in his heart long ago when his mother gave him her only legacy â€“ a Bible. Somewhere in his mind the idea of his mother became linked to the Kingdom of God. He both loved her and the Kingdomâ€™s promises, and hated her and the Kingdom for denying them to him. He has been at war with the Kingdom of God for its betrayal. But now the Kingdom is beginning a counterattack with its big gun â€“ unconditional love.
As Ben Wade meets the Kingdom of God in the Evans home, William Evans meets the prince of the Present Evil Age he has been reading about in dime novels. As Ben has memorized passages from the Bible, William has practically memorized dime novels about Ben Wade. As Ben had idealized his mother, Will has idealized the outlaw.
Daniel orders his son to stay home, with the ill son Mark. But William the teenage son must be about the business of deciding whose path to follow and whose Kingdom to seek â€“ Benâ€™s or Danâ€™s. When Dan realizes the boy has disobeyed him and followed the posse, he orders him to return home. “He ain’t following you,” Ben Wade tells him. “He’s following me.”
Finally, in Contention, the son, Will, shares a bridal suite with his two potential â€œfathersâ€, Dan and Ben. The journey from Bisbee has been one in which William, (the name is associated with kingship) must decide with whose Kingdom he will align himself. In the hotel room, the two men and the Word await the train and their fate. An open Bible rests on Benâ€™s lap, as he sketches on the title page the portrait of a man who could be either himself or Dan.Â Perhaps the drawing suggests that both men have become one in the Spirit, become the body of Christ, become the Bride of Christ. In any event, the drawing reveals the transformative work of the Spirit in the Word which is taking place in the menâ€™s hearts.
The transformation manifests itself first in Ben as he helps Dan avoid his own posse seeking to free him and kill Dan.Â When Ben finally kills his own band for murdering Dan, we sense the weapons of the Present Evil Age have been appropriated by the Kingdom of God.Â Ben has had the Evil Age destroy both his mother and his newfound friend in Christ. He now â€œbinds the strong [men]â€™ with pistols whose crucifixed handles proclaim the Kingdom on whose behalf Ben now acts.
With those acts, Ben shows Will that the Kingdom of God, and the life of his father Dan, is a far better choice than Benâ€™s life outside Godâ€™s Kingdom. Ben sees himself in Will â€“ standing at a train station without the parent he depended on. Ben acts on behalf of the Kingdom of God, so that Will, unlike Ben years ago, will choose Godâ€™s Kingdom.
And Will does. He has pulled his gun on Wade. (He did this earlier in the movie. Wade said something like, “I thought he was gonna shoot me, I really did.” And his father had said, “My son ain’t like you.”) Now Will points the gun at Wade a second time and doesnâ€™t shoot. Why? Because he has begun to follow his Father’s rule and reign.
The lesson of 3:10 to Yuma is one for all sons â€“ Dan Evans, Will Evans, and Ben Wade alike.Â (Danâ€™s second son, Mark, is at home, ready to report the account of his father and brotherâ€™s good news.) As George Eldon Ladd put it:
“Though the Kingdom is a gracious gift, it is also costly. It may cost one his earthly possessions (Mark 10:21), or his friends or the affections of his family or even his very life (Luke 14:26). But cost what it may, the Kingdom of God is like a treasure or a costly pearl whose possessions merits any cost.”