Exploring Contrasts in the Bible

"I lost 86 pounds," the ad proclaims, but what really catches your eye are the two photographs below the headline. One shows a dejected-looking woman whose sloppy overblouse cannot hide the bulging thighs beneath her too-tight pants. The other shows a shapely, smiling woman posed like a model.

Advertisers often employ contrasts like this. Why? Because striking contrasts capture our attention. They show us clearly the options that are available to us. They persuade us to choose one option over another.

We should not be surprised to find contrast used frequently in Scripture. After all, God's Word is, in a sense, divine advertising. God wants to give us himself, to persuade us to abandon our sinful ways and buy into abundant life with him. God has inspired the biblical writers to present vivid contrasts -- light vs. darkness, life vs. death, love vs.alienation -- to highlight the crucial choices before us and help us choose rightly.

Bible study leaders can help members of their small group experience the persuasive, life-changing power of God's Word by focusing their attention on the contrasts in Scripture. Let me illustrate how the approach works using the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32).

Begin by asking people to list every contrast they can find in the passage. Their list might include:

1) the prodigal son's attitudes when leaving home vs. his attitudes when returning

2) the life the prodigal experienced in the far country vs. the life he found waiting for him when he returned home

3) the younger brother's personality vs. the elder brother's personality

4) the father's response to the returning prodigal vs. the elder brother's response.

After your group has listed all the basic contrasts they can find, have them choose one area of contrast and explore it more fully. Be sure people understand that they can use their imaginations to flesh out various elements of the contrast. The Bible, like powerful advertising, often makes its point by suggesting far more than it states explicitly.

Suppose your group chooses to explore the differences between the life the prodigal son led in the far country and the life he found waiting at home. As they imagine what the prodigal must have experienced, they will find the parable draws a sharp contrast between two kinds of partying. The phrases "squandered his wealth in wild living" (v. 13) and "no one gave him anything" (v. 16) suggest that in the far country the prodigal tried desperately to buy fun and friends, but instead found only fleeting, dehumanizing pleasures followed by painful disillusionment and abandonment. How different from the homecoming party that greeted his return, where real pleasures (hugs and kisses, new clothes, a great feast, music and dancing) were given freely to the prodigal as expressions of his father's love for him, a love that nothing he had done could ever cancel out.

Encouraging your group to explore this single area of contrast in the story of the prodigal son will lead to insights and applications that they may never have seen before. Among other things, they will be reminded forcefully that their choice is not between partying and God. Their choice is between joyful, lasting fellowship and celebration in God's family, or the illusory fun of living it up in a far country.

--Margaret Parker

(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 2:3)