The Crucified Thief,
Painted by Robert Campin (1378-1444),
Painted circa 1430,
Oil on oak panel
© Städel Museum
Thus the last will be first, and the first, last
Jesus said to his disciples: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, "You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage." So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" "Because no one has hired us" they answered. He said to them, "You go into my vineyard too." In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first." So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. "The men who came last" they said "have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day's work in all the heat." He answered one of them and said, "My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?" Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.'
Reflection on the Painting
The phrase Jesus ends the Gospel reading of today with,'The last will be first, and the first, last' means that being first in this earthly life with wealth or status does not guarantee entry into God's kingdom. Salvation or eternal life is not earned by one's status in this earthly life.
The story of the workers in the vineyard illustrates how some of the labourers saw their own work as worthy of more compensation because they had worked longer hours. They considered the other workers who joined later in the day as being inferior and less worthy of reward. All believers, no matter how long or how hard they work during this lifetime, will receive the same reward: eternal life. That is why it is such a motivating Gospel reading for evangelisation. Even those who would turn to God at the very end of their lives will receive eternal life. This should fire us up to evangelise, and evangelise people of all ages. Think of the thief who was hanging alongside Jesus on the cross. Although his life of faith was limited to a very short moment of repentance and confession in front of Christ, he received eternal life.
I therefore want to show you this panel, The Crucified Thief by Robert Campin, painted around 1430, at about the same time as the Van Eyck brothers' Ghent Altarpiece. It is very rare to have a stand-alone painting of the thief. This panel was part of a much larger altarpiece. It shows the thief, crucified and tied with ropes to the wooden cross. His skin is pale and his face is contorted with pain. The rope-cut wounds on his legs and the broken leg are extraordinarily realistically rendered… This thief repented at the very last minute, and as a result would join Christ in Heaven...
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