The generational relationships between all the Ames men in Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead are complicated and complex. There are four men named John Ames in this story: three generations in one family and a namesake from a closely connected family (though he is generally referred to as Jack). Aside from their names and their family connections, they are also joined by their religious and social convictions--or their lack of them.
The relationship between the second John Ames (the letter-writer and narrator of the story) and his best friend's son, John Ames "Jack" Boughton is significant but particularly complicated for two reasons. First, Ames is a preacher and Jack is an atheist, and Jack's presence both as a teenager and as an adult tests the older man's beliefs about sin, forgiveness, and salvation.
Jack is an avowed atheist, yet he is always interested in talking about spiritual (or at least moral) matters and regularly listens to Ames's sermons. Their relationship has been difficult since Jack was a teenager causing trouble everywhere he went; his return is equally difficult, as Ames is forced to consider the spiritual principle of redemption in a personal way rather than just what he has so blithely and steadfastly taught and thought he believed. It is a challenge Ames, as a dying man, finds uncomfortable; in the end, he is unable to change his view--at least explicitly.
Ames does something at the end of the novel, however, which suggests that he may have come to the spiritual belief that a lifelong, persistent sinner, can indeed be saved (redeemed). Troubled by all kinds of personal problems (most of his own making or choosing), Jack finally decides to leave town, though he does not know what to do or where else to go. Ames finds him at the bus stop and prays over him, a kind of benediction or blessing. This act does not reflect the absolute certainty of redemption, but it is a hopeful act of reconciliation between the two men. Ames writes this to his son:
“It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.”
The second point of conflict between Ames and Jack is that Ames is quite jealous of the relationship Jack has with Lila, Ames's young wife (because they are of the same generation). The younger man is able to play with Ames's young son, something Ames can no longer do, and Lila does seem to have a tenderness for the troubled atheist; however, there does not seem to be any actual cause for the jealousy and fear Jack's presence engenders in the older man. Instead, we sense in Ames's writing that he is simply sad that he is growing old and, even worse, is sick and will not live to see his son grow to be a man. It is this regret, more than anything Jack does or says, which seems to be driving his jealousy and fear.
The relationship between these two men is, again, complex and complicated. Ames wanted so much to have children and coveted what Jack's father had; obviously, however, Jack has been a disappointment both to his own father (a Presbyterian minister) and to Ames, the Congregationalist preacher whom Jack quite respects and admires despite his past actions toward Ames. It does become clear by the end of the novel (which is also near the end of Ames's life) that Ames and Jack both need reconciliation and healing at this point in their lives--Ames before he dies and Jack so he can eventually find happiness, or at least contentment.