Prodigal Grace for a Dying Pastor

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 149-215 of Gilead. See also:


One of the great loves of Robert Boughton's life—and also his greatest grief—is his son Jack. Here Gilead author Marilynne Robinson views a familiar character-type from a fresh vantage point. We do not see the prodigal son from the perspective of his father, but of his father's best friend. John Ames, too, has a fatherly role in Jack's life (the young man is his godson), but he stands more in the position of the older brother (see Luke 15:11ff.). Ames describes himself as the good son who never left his father's house, “one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained” (see Luke 15:7).

The Older Brother

Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Ames resents Jack's careless immorality. “I don't know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment,” he says, “without ever giving anyone any grounds for hope.” For as long as Ames can remember, there has been something “devilish” about the boy's petty thefts and other sly transgressions. His juvenile pranks were not fun-loving, but mean-spirited.

But Jack's greatest sin of all was to father the child of a poor country girl out of wedlock, and then to neglect the child, who died of a common infection. The guilty charity of the rest of the Boughton family came too late to save her. “It was just terrible what happened to her,” Ames says, “and that's a fact.”

At one level, the Reverend Ames believes that “the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression.” This principle is deeply rooted in Robinson's own commitment to Calvinism, as expressed through her essays in The Death of Adam (New York: Picador, 2000) and other places. She writes, “We are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace.”

John Ames believes in sin and grace as much as Robinson does. He believes further that Boughton's love for his wayward son—“the most beloved”—exemplifies Christ-like compassion. Yet he is also angered by the extravagance of his friend's fatherly affection, which he regards as overindulgence. Given the chance, Boughton would pardon every last one of his son's transgressions, past, present, and future. Ames finds it hard not to resent this grace, even though he knows his feelings are at odds with his theology:

I have said at least once a week my whole adult life that there is an absolute disjunction between our Father's love and our deserving. Still, when I see this same disjunction between human parents and children, it always irritates me.

Ames's struggle to reconcile the true gravity of human sin with the free grace of God's forgiveness is complicated by his unique role in Jack's life. The boy was born long before Ames had a son of his own, and as a gift of Christian friendship, Boughton named him John Ames. Jack is Ames's namesake, his alter ego; indeed, he is “another self, a more cherished self.”

Yet when Ames performed Jack's baptism, he found his heart strangely cold towards the child. To his own guilt and shame, he has always found it hard to love his godson the way that his friend intended, or the way he knows a godly pastor should. He regards his namesake as possibly dangerous (where will Jack's growing friendship with Lila and Robby lead?) and probably dishonorable—someone who will “never really repent and never really reform.”

“I don't forgive him,” Ames says. “I wouldn't know where to begin.”

The Younger Brother

Like the Reverend Ames, Jack Boughton fears that he is beyond forgiveness. Although he is an agnostic (“a state of categorical unbelief,” he calls it: “I don't even believe God doesn't exist”), Jack still wonders whether there is any grace for him. This is the personal issue that lies behind the philosophical question he asks about predestination in one of the book's central dialogues: “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?”

Ames and Boughton both err in taking this question as primarily theological rather than intensely pastoral. But Jack is really asking about himself: can he be saved, or is he beyond any hope of redemption? Surprisingly, it is Lila—not the ministers—who understands the real question and gives the most helpful response: “A person can change. Everything can change.”

The Father's Blessing

If the Reverend Ames fails to give Jack the spiritual help he needs, it is not without misgivings. He believes he is called to save the prodigal son and give him grace, that “ecstatic fire,” but he is struggling within his soul: “I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor.”

Ames begins to wish that somehow he could make up for the boy's cold baptism, that he could “put my hand on his brow and calm away all the guilt.” Given the circumstances, he does the only thing he knows how to do and prays for Jack, asking God for the wisdom to care for him as a good shepherd.

These prayers are answered in the novel's climactic scene, which brings the balm to Gilead. After revealing that he has a “colored” wife and son, Jack decides to leave Gilead for good, even though it means abandoning his father in his dying days—a sin Ames knows that “only his father would forgive him for.” The Reverend Ames meets Jack at the bus station and asks to bless him, to pray for God's protection and pronounce a final benediction: “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.”

These are loving words of the prodigal grace that God lavishes on all his prodigal sons. They are words of blessing for both men—for John Ames as well as John Ames Boughton, the Older Brother and the Younger Brother. For the Reverend Ames to utter these words on behalf of his namesake is worth seminary and ordination and all his years in ministry. It is also the final preparation he needs to die a peaceable death.

For reflection or discussion: All of the father-son relationships in Gilead are marked by some form of estrangement or abandonment. According to the Reverend Ames, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” This is true for Ames himself, whose father cannot understand why he stays in Gilead, and whose son is too young to comprehend most of what his father wants to communicate.

How has your relationship with your father (or some other family member) hindered your spiritual progress or helped you understand the grace of God? How can a father lavish grace on his children without excusing their sins or becoming overindulgent? Who are some of the prodigal sons and daughters on your prayer list? Where have you seen God's grace at work to restore children who have wandered away from him?

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