‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.’
– Luke 15.13
The story of the Prodigal Son moves on quickly. He’s asked for his inheritance and his Father divides up his estate between him and the elder son.
The phrasing of the passage of time here seems to suggest a natural delay. By that I mean that the younger son seems to be delayed only in so far as the time it would have taken for the estate to be divided and for him to gather up his stuff. This would most likely have taken a few weeks to arrange and sort out.
Does this matter? Does it make any difference?
I think so. If the passage of time were different, say it were ‘Sometime after that’, or ‘Later’, then it could just be sequential. A happened, then B happened; and B may have happened a long time after A but it’s the next thing which happened. But here we find that it was ‘not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off to a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living’. This creates the impression, to my mind at least, that the younger son asked for his inheritance in order that he could set off to the distant land to, in his mind, have a good time.
That in turn means we’re talking about a relatively firm degree of intention on his part. He decided this is what he wants to do and so he asks his father, and so despises him, for his inheritance so that he can pursue his desire. This is an intentionally sinful act and the Pharisee listening to the story would happily classify him as a Sinner. He has deliberately, as he himself says later, sinned against heaven and his Father. Jesus makes no pretence that the younger son isn’t a Sinner, in fact he’s just like the Tax Collectors and Sinners who were gathered around Jesus at the start of the chapter.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’
– Luke 15.1
Telling this story, then, Jesus is talking about someone just like the people he’s sitting with. Just as they are sinners like the younger son, they can also be like the younger son later in the story. They could look at the younger son in the story and say, “He’s a Sinner like us.”