Can Jesus redeem corrupt pastors?
HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones asks this question around the same time televangelist Benny Hinn reportedly renounced prosperity theology. By weaving together biblical narratives and contemporary faith, the series puts a hopeful spin on one of the oldest stories: religious corruption.
HBO's skewering of Prosperity Gospel Megachurch Evangelicalism seems at first to be an attempt to pick low-hanging fruit. Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) built a church empire alongside his now-deceased wife. His two sons, Jesse (Danny McBride) and Kelvin (Adam Devine), work under him, training to take over. The comparison to Eli, the biblical priest of Shiloh, is intentional: the title of episode 6—“Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men”—quotes 1 Samuel 2:12. But it soon becomes clear that the show has another passage from the Bible on its mind.
Jesse has an estranged son, Gideon (Skyler Gisondo), who has left the family estate to become a stuntman in Hollywood. When Gideon comes back home early on in the series, there is an echo of Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 15:11-32. The prodigal son returns, but not to a fatted calf. Jesse refuses to acknowledge his son or to welcome him into his home. That the prodigal's return doesn't go as expected is a sign that Righteous Gemstones wants to subvert our expectations about what it means to say about religion. Righteous Gemstones is not the story of a prodigal son, but a prodigal father, one who can only find home by leaving.
We call Jesus' parable "The Prodigal Son" not because the son leaves, but because he wastes what he has—the inheritance his father gives him. Prodigality is not absence but wastefulness. No Gemstone is more wasteful than Jesse. The Gemstone empire has grown up with him, and he stands poised to inherit the whole thing. Jesse approaches religion as a job—one he loves, but a job nonetheless. He can preach an outstanding Easter sermon at home, conduct a baptism crusade in China, or lead a prayer conference in Atlanta, then celebrate with prostitutes and cocaine (which is not exactly how Jesus became a friend of sinners). Jesse experiences no disconnect between his lavish, crude lifestyle and the public face of a righteous Gemstone he wears for work.
Gemstones is not the story of a prodigal son, but a prodigal father.
Righteous Gemstones uses its production design to highlight Jesse's lavish lifestyle. From immaculate designer clothing we might expect to find at PreachersNSneakers to golden carpets and massive mansions, nearly every moment Jesse is on the screen illustrates how prodigal he's been with the tithes the Gemstones collect. The first season of Righteous Gemstones is an inversion, then, of Jesus' parable. (Spoilers ahead.) Jesse, the father, squanders the wealth and power his position grants him. His son leaves, taking nothing with him, and returns not to rejoin his father, but to rob him of his undeserved gains.
By the end of the show’s first season, both Jesse and Gideon have been exposed as frauds. Gideon flees to Haiti to dig wells in an attempt to "find peace" and "become a better man." Jesse, having confessed everything to his wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), goes to Haiti to try to bring Gideon home. "Your momma's gonna leave me. I need you to come home now," he tells his son. But Gideon refuses, insisting, "You just came here to fix your own life." Then he asks, "Do you really want to make things better, or do you just want to make the bad stuff go away?" Jesse can't understand in that moment that his son is inviting him to authentic religious transformation—not just making the 'bad stuff' go away, but truly being changed. He returns home empty-handed and unchanged. True to his prediction, his wife meets him on the runway to end their marriage.
Jesse cannot find redemption at home, not even in the finale's riotous (and ridiculous) third act, which includes both a recovery of family wealth and possibly even a sign of divine intervention as Uncle Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) is struck by lightning. As season one draws to a close, Eli Gemstone offers a final sermon, with Jesse nowhere to be seen. We find him instead leaving his home, dressed for the first time in the series not in white, but in brown. The final scene shows Jesse arriving in Haiti to join his son working in the fields.
In her commentary on Jesus' three parables of lost things (the sheep, the coin, the son), New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine asks, "Do we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it—or him or her—again?" Jesus embodies the lengths to which God will go to retrieve those whom God has lost. When we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation and the mystery of the cross, when we receive the Eucharist together, we proclaim the love of a God who takes on flesh and embraces death, that we might be welcomed home.
Righteous Gemstones seems to hold out hope for Jesse. He is a son born into wealth and power. He is a father who took his family and his vocation for granted. So long as he was home, he could not see what he needed. But when his prodigality cost him the life he knew, Jesse embraced the way of incarnation. Like Jesus, he left his power and privilege to take the form of a servant, digging wells in Haiti with his son.
Righteous Gemstones ends not with redemption, but the possibility of redemption. Will Jesse and Gideon reconcile? What about Jesse and Amber? Will Jesse, like Zacchaeus, repay those he has defrauded? Jesse’s path forward is unclear, but because he has imitated Jesus, this prodigal father has the potential for true transformation in Season 2.