The story is told that the great sixteenth-century Reformer, Martin Luther, was struck by the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” in Romans 1:17: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed for faith from faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” For a long time, he was terrified by that term, thinking that it referred to God’s terrible and awful standard of righteousness by which He judged the world, which was the customary way that the phrase had been understood through medieval times. But Luther finally came to understand that the righteousness of God is not that incomparable standard which no one can meet on Judgment Day, but, on the contrary, the righteousness whereby God makes men righteous through his Son, Jesus Christ – by redeeming them through His Son’s sacrifice and justifying them through His Son’s blood. It was Luther’s grand “reformation breakthrough” in which he recovered the gospel that had been for too long buried underneath medieval theology.
In this parable, Jesus tells a story which seems on the surface grossly unfair. An employer hires out men to work in his vineyard. Some work twelve hours (all day), some work nine hours, some six, some three, and some but one. He had agreed with the first to pay them a denarius for the day. At the end of the day, beginning with the last who had worked but one hour, each man received a denarius. The first “grumbled at the master” thinking they should receive more than those who worked less, especially those who worked only one hour. But the master responds that he gave them what they had previously arranged and says, “I choose to give to the last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” The master had made no previous agreement with the others, only that he would pay them “whatever is right.” The master chose to make them equal with the first, and in doing so, he wronged no one.
And this is the grace of God: that he forgives sinners, even the worst, and clothes them in His Son’s righteousness through faith. It matters not who they were, but what He has made them upon saving faith. Jesus ends the parable with what he said on several occasions, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus isn’t teaching us about labor relations in this world; he is teaching us about the grace of God that can save a slaver such as John Newton, who then penned the greatest hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace,” because the righteousness of God even covered him – and even us.