‘The Repentant Sinner’ by Leo Tolstoy: Short Story Analysis
‘The Repentant Sinner’, also called ‘Repentance’, was published in 1886 by probably the greatest Russian writer of the nineteenth century, Leo Tolstoy. ‘The Repentant Sinner’ is a Biblical short story with an esoteric and Christian moral theme. The verse mentioned at the beginning of the short story is taken from the Holy Bible from the Gospel of the evangelist St. Luke. The verse talks about the repentant sinner who was crucified on a cross along with the Lord Jesus. That sinner was the theoretical ‘good thief’ popular in Christian lore. He is also dubbed the repentant sinner because he did not mock the Lord Jesus or ask that the Lord Jesus save himself and the two crucified thieves. On the verge of death, he repents his sins and asks the Lord to remember him when the Lord Jesus returns to heaven. The evangelist records that the repentant sinner’s humility and sincerity touched the Lord Jesus so profoundly that he declared that that same day both of them would be in heaven or paradise. This Biblical story is an indirect message to Christians and people of other denominations that it is never too late to repent because greater than man’s sin is God’s mercy. This short story contains several Biblical allusions and themes that I will briefly discuss to benefit those doing research, especially non-Christian researchers and students studying Leo Tolstoy’s literary works.
Leo Tolstoy penned this short story titled ‘Repentance’ or ‘The Repentant Sinner’ immediately after undergoing a profound moral crisis. He then started believing and practicing the ethical teachings of the Lord Jesus. This story has several layers of theology to it. The story of the so-called ‘good thief’ on a cross next to Christ has been depicted as probably the first and last prayer this thief had uttered in his life. The point is that the Lord Jesus answered his prayer. In his Gospel, the evangelist St. Luke tends to dwell on those people and characters whom you least likely expect to be believers in the Lord in the time of Christian Salvation history: Samaritans, women, people of other faiths, and thieves. In this part of the text, we see Luke focusing on a thief asking for mercy. It seems very convenient; you sin all your life, then you expect God to save you because you remembered him in your last moments on Earth! In Leo Tolstoy’s story, the man who lived for seventy years is somewhat like this good thief. At least where the good thief was concerned, theologians presume, he had probably never done any good throughout his life. Leo Tolstoy tells us plainly that this old man of seventy had done nothing good throughout his life. We are aware of this. We are also aware that he remembers God when he becomes gravely ill and, yet again to me, conveniently, refers to God’s mercy and love through the example of the good thief.
He reaches heaven as we see and knocks on its doors. He encounters three people, or rather three voices, while outside heaven’s gates:
- The Apostle Saint Peter, the first Pope of the Catholic Church.
- King David, from whose ancestral line the Lord Jesus descended.
- Saint John, the evangelist, also the most beloved disciple of Lord Jesus.
The seventy-year-old man is right where he deserves to be, outside the doors of heaven, which are shut on his face. Human justice forces me to declare that this was probably the best place for him theoretically because, as we read in the text, he had not done a single good thing for anyone all his life. Yet, if you notice, he is very well versed in scripture. When he encounters the three divine beings, he fights his own case by bringing to their minds their questionable actions on Earth. The only person he could not say much about was Saint John, though Saint John had several flaws plus a violent and aggressive zeal, which is evident in the synoptic gospels but not his own Gospel, the Gospel of John. This seventy-year-old man quotes scripture and tells the first two divine beings about their own earthly life. He made Saint Peter recall:
- How he slept while the Lord Jesus wept and grieved exceedingly in the Garden of ‘Gethsemane’ before his arrest.
- How he denied the Lord three times when the Lord was taken to Caiaphas.
- How he wept when he realized that he had rejected the Lord at the crowing of the cock.
He made the patriarch King David recall:
- How he lusted after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
- How he had an illicit affair with Bathsheba, a married woman.
- How he got Uriah killed by putting the poor man right in front of the army of foot soldiers while fighting with the Ammonites.
- His realization that he had ruined a poor man.
It seems that this seventy-year-old man is in a tight spot and trying to muscle his way into heaven by quoting Biblical texts. There is nothing wrong with the seventy-year-old man knowing the Bible. What is wrong is who or rather what he had to appeal to because it is doubtful that he would ever enter the Kingdom of God in his current situation. He had done nothing to be a fitting candidate to enter. He was appealing to the mercy of God and the fact that man is a weak person. That was not good enough. To enter the Kingdom, he had to appeal to God’s love because only great love can allow a sinner to enter the land exclusively kept for Saints. But in this Biblical story, Leo Tolstoy brings out the following text from the Bible very beautifully:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.—Luke 5: 31–32
This is the theology of the acceptance of sinners becoming believers at the last minute. Christian Theology preaches that God’s ways are not our ways. There are many verses in the Gospels that we can never truly accept because it is difficult to see some people who are so wicked being blessed and some who are so good at heart suffering all their waking lives. However, Gnostic scripture and Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts are particular about the idea of reincarnation and previous births, which is why some people though wicked, are blessed, and some who are good, are cursed. I have reviewed a good book on that topic titled The Secret History of the Gnostics by Andrew Phillip Smith, which you can check out here. The Gnostic impression is very intricate, as is even evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, Leo Tolstoy would not be thinking of this aspect of ethical Christian teachings while writing this story. For him, the fact was that since Saint John came to the door of heaven, and he was the beloved disciple who wrote several times in his own Gospel, the Gospel of John, that God was love – therefore under oath of his own text, he should let the seventy-year-old man enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And yes, Saint John allows him to enter and embraces him. This is because love is greater than the sum of human sinning. God hates the sin and not the sinner, and one must not question the generosity of the love God bestows on certain people. This goes a bit against my Ambedkarite brain, but that is precisely what Leo Tolstoy is talking of here. For similar analyses like ‘The Repentant Sinner’, you can check out my analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s short story ‘Little Girls Wiser Than Men’.
There a few things in the text that are very relevant, which I list below:
- There is an Accuser, so it seems, probably the ‘slanderer’ in this case, Satan, who was once the serpent in the Garden of Eden who narrates and keeps track of all the acts of humankind that he may gain more citizens for his own Kingdom. It is the Accuser either outside or inside the gate or doors of heaven who narrates three times the seventy-year-old man’s deeds. All three divine beings: Saint Peter, King David, and Saint John, seem to take the Accuser at his word. Could this mean Satan and God have some working relationship going on here? Or does it mean that probably, as mentioned in Gnostic literature, the Accuser is the conscience of humanity or the keepers of the Akashic records containing every thought and word of a person?
- The seventy-year-old man asks Saint Peter and King David to pity him because, indeed, God pitied them when they were on this Earth and allowed them to become such iconic figures in Salvation history. However, he is sure that Saint John would not pity him, but because of the disciple’s excess love, he would be let in. Some commentators claim that this could also mean that the seventy-year-old man was crafty and decided that since his case had dropped to the floor by his accusations against Saint Peter and King David, it was better that he not try the same with Saint John. Therefore, he only appeals to Saint John’s love.
- Notice when the seventy-year-old man talks to Saint Peter and King David, he refers to their own sins and says very brazenly that his sins were like theirs. In that context, they should let him in. Again, by playing the blame game, no one will enter heaven or even hell; one must be truly repentant for one’s wrongdoings and appeal to God’s mercy or, even better, his love. This is the very essence of repentance as taught by the Christian church, especially the Catholic Church.
The story ends with the repentant sinner gaining entry into heaven because he has not been proud but has repented at the last moment. He has used sacred scripture to fight his own case like a lawyer and has won for himself a place in God’s Kingdom. There is a saying in my country, especially in my city of Mumbai, ‘dhundne par Bhagwan bhi mil jata hai’ or ‘if you search long enough, you will even find God’. You can read more about this in the book Sadhus by Dolf Hartsuiker, a book on Hindu asceticism, which I have reviewed here. Leo Tolstoy’s message is deep and full of controversy but needs to be discussed.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Do get your copy of the short story and study the text. I have the whole collection of Leo Tolstoy’s works in my office-cum-writing hut, which I hope to read and review for you on my blog. I live surrounded by 32,000 books. If you want to know more about me, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai here. I hope to analyze more short stories by Leo Tolstoy soon.
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