"The Penitent Sinner" , by Leo Tolstoy, is a story that deals with topics such as prejudice, self-deception, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption. This particular story is meaningful because it analyzes these topics from the point of view of three extremely important characters in theology, namely Peter, King David, and John-whom Jesus loved the most.
The story keeps a pattern in narrative, as the sinner begs to be let in, while receiving a negative reply from inside the gates of heaven.
There are two important quotes that denote the central theme of the story:
Didst thou not in thine old age say this one sentence to the people: ‘Brethren, love one another’? How then can'st thou now begin to hate me and drive me away? Either deny what thou thyself hast said, or else let me into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
This quote is essential because the sinner reminds John that if he (John) claims to have been loved by Jesus the most, and calls himself a saint, and yet has enjoyed the love of God- how in the world can he look upon another man and say that a sinner cannot get entry into heaven.
This shows an exposure to the hypocrisy of those 'holier than thou' types of persons who idealize religion as a world of pure sainthood, but forget that they too have sinned. This is a direct blow to the organized religions and to people who look down upon others. They should remember that, as their finger point at someone, there are three fingers pointing back straight at themselves.
Another nice quote comes from the saints themselves when they say to the sinner each time he asks to get in:
“Depart hence; such sinners cannot live together with us in Heaven.”
Imagine how arrogant it would seem to have Peter- who denied Jesus at his worst hour, David- who took another man's wife, and John-whose life motto is "love one another"- tell a man who has sinned just as badly as they have that he cannot go inside the gates of heaven!
It is interesting how Tolstoy allows the main character to retort back by stating facts that directly remind the saints that the way in which they entered heaven themselves was by learning from their sins, acknowledging them, and transforming themselves for the better. How could they deny anyone entrance into heaven? We are all the same.
That is basically the biggest message that Tolstoy sends out in this story: Saints were once sinners themselves. This show the natural weakness of men. However, it would be an even weaker thing to not change, and not learn from them. Everyone gets the same fair chance at heaven as long as they repent sincerely.