Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was twenty-eight when he was arrested for his vocal opposition of Tsarist Russia.
Sentenced to death by firing squad, Dostoyevsky was on the scaffold, soldiers with muskets at shoulder, when the execution was stayed. Tsar Nicolas I had commuted his sentence to ten years of exile, four of them in the prison camp in Omsk, Siberia.
At a way station en route to Omsk, a woman slipped a small New Testament into his hand. During his exile, “he studied the precious volume from cover to cover, pondered every word; learned much of it by heart,” said his daughter. “Throughout his life, he could never be without his old prison Testament, the faithful friend that had consoled him in the darkest hours of his life. He always took it with him on his travels and kept it in a drawer in his writing-table, within reach of his hand.”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son touched him deeply. That story, above all others, revealed to him the heart of the Father. Even in the dismal environment of Siberian exile, he wrote: “God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and know that I am loved.”
The prison was unimaginably depressing. “In the summer it is unbearably hot,” he said; “in the winter unbearably cold. All the boards are rotten. On the ground filth lies an inch thick . . . The small windows are so frozen over . . . the ice on the panes is three inches thick. We are packed like herrings in a barrel. The atmosphere is intolerable: the prisoners stink like pigs: there are vermin by the bushel: we sleep upon bare boards.”
No wonder the Parable of the Prodigal Son impressed him: Siberia was his far country; the prison his pig pen. “It was amidst those stern and awful solitudes that he, a homesick and penitent Prodigal, found the road that leads to the Father’s house,” wrote F.W. Boreham.
In all of Dostoyevsky’s books, there are references to the words of that worn New Testament in which he discovered the Father’s love for his wayward children.
In her book about her father, Aimee Dostoyevsky told how his wife, Anna, knew when he was near death. The children gathered. “Taking our hands in his,” she wrote, “he had my mother read the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” With faltering voice, she read the story from the faded and tattered Testament that had been his constant comfort and companion.
“My children,” he said, “never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared with the love of God. Even if you should commit some dreadful crime, never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him, implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance, as the father rejoiced over that of the Prodigal Son.”
A few minutes later, at 8:38, he died quietly, holding Anna’s hand.
Author Susan Hill noted the time of his death—8:38—and said, “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Romans 8:38 says: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”
Ralph Connor, in Sky Pilot, tells of a young man who deserted his Christian home in Scotland and beat a path to a far country of sin and shame. As he lay dying an early death due to his debauchery, he read a letter from his mother that had come to him that day. It ended: “And oh! Davie laddie, if ever your heart should turn homeward, remember the door stands widely open.”
That is the touching message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the loving Father keeps the door widely open, and the angels of God gather to joyfully welcome the prodigal who repents and returns.