Over 2500 years ago, a fellow named Jeremiah, in the Old Testament book bearing his name, included the expression “can a leopard change his spots?” (you will find it in Jeremiah 13.23) The implied answer is, “No, leopards don’t change their spots; how could they?” Admittedly, I was surprised by one person who recently commented that leopards could change their spots if they jumped into a pool of bleach!!
In reality, most of us have spots in our character and behavior that we wish weren’t there. They are our leopard spots. Can they be changed? For one kind of an answer, we can look at a fellow who received a small letter from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. His name was Philemon and he serves as an example of a leopard who was not condemned to the same old spots!!
[to provide background for the comments that follow, you are invited to read the original letter. It’s at the end of this little article]
To begin, let’s try to put ourselves in Philemon’s situation. First, the letter implies that a fellow named Onesimus, who had been a slave of Philemon until he somehow escaped, had stolen something of value from Philemon’s (money or goods) or, that in some other way or another by running away Onesimus had caused Philemon financial loss. Such a situation meant that there was troubled water there in Philemon’s mind. Second, Philemon had social status, wealth, and prestige, items which Onesimus didn’t have. These kind of items would have led Philemon to look at Onesimus from “above”, socially speaking.
Saying it a little differently, Philemon would have done to Onesimus the same thing we do – Put people into a mental boxes or mental categories. In Philemon’s mind, Onesimus was in various “boxes”: the runaway slave box, the thief box, the law-breaker box, the betray-your-master box, the he-deserves-punishment box. You get the idea, I am sure.
The fact is that generalizations (using mental boxes) do have some legitimate functions. They help us think in categories, make judgments, and communicate. Generalizations free us from having to only talk about specifics and particulars. Using generalizations permit us to make a statement about a crowd without having to make a statement about 200 specific individuals. We can make statements about children, not only about Jimmy, Susie, Ann, David, Justin, Abigail, Aaron, etc. We can make statements about in-laws, about politicians, and about professional athletes. The list goes on and on. . .
BUT, while generalizations (the boxes) may be helpful at the right time and place, they can also create great harm. They can easily keep us from recognizing the exceptions and differences among those folk we have put into the boxes we so easily employ. Furthermore, the “boxes” encourage us to follow pre-calculated, but mistaken, responses to individual situations. This is where Philemon was in relation to Onesimus. Onesimus was in the slave box, the thief box. And, the behavior of people in those boxes had a prescribed response as established by society.
All of a sudden, one day Onesimus shows up, and hands Philemon a letter. It’s from the apostle Paul, one of Philemon’s friends. The letter puts Philemon in an awkward position, since runaway slaves just don’t one day show up as a mail carrier! Furthermore, as Philemon reads Paul’s letter, he notices that Paul includes some things that culturally just don’t fit. The biggest one is captured by a word that jumps out several times in the letter: “adelphos” “hermano” “brother”
Paul has identified Onesimus with a completely different “box” or category. Philemon has a new brother. Not only a slave, but a brother, “our” brother!!! Paul was affirming that in Christ we are all kin folk. Onesimus was a brother, in Christ, and that superseded all other relationships implicit in the “boxes” Philemon normally used when thinking about Onesimus!!!
Allow me to conclude with a personal comment. Joyce my wife, fit into many boxes that we use in society. As her husband, I also fit into many of our society’s boxes. But, there was one box that superseded all the others – she was my sister in Christ and I was her brothers in Christ. But, it goes further. My three daughters fit many boxes. But above them all is the fact that they are all my sisters in Christ. My three sons-in-law fit many boxes, but above all of them they are my brothers in Christ. I have grand children who are more than grand children – they are brothers and sisters in Christ. So, where does God’s word instruct me concerning my family relationships? Wherever it refers to brothers and sisters in Christ!!
Can a leopard change his spots? Can God change us? Of course, He can and He does.
Paul’s letter to Philemon
1 From Paul, a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy— To our friend and fellow worker Philemon, 2 and the church that meets in your house, and our sister Apphia, and our fellow soldier Archippus: 3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
4 Brother Philemon, every time I pray, I mention you and give thanks to my God. 5 For I hear of your love for all of God’s people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 My prayer is that our fellowship with you as believers will bring about a deeper understanding of every blessing which we have in our life in union with Christ. 7 Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement! You have cheered the hearts of all of God’s people.
8 For this reason I could be bold enough, as your brother in Christ, to order you to do what should be done. 9 But because I love you, I make a request instead. I do this even though I am Paul, the ambassador of Christ Jesus, and at present also a prisoner for his sake. 10 So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father. 11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him back to you now, and with him goes my heart. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel’s sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14 However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like for you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.
15 It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. 16 And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord! 17 So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay you back (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me.) 20 So, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake; as a brother in Christ, cheer me up!
21 I am sure, as I write this, that you will do what I ask—in fact I know that you will do even more. 22 At the same time, get a room ready for me, because I hope that God will answer the prayers of all of you and give me back to you.
23 Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings, 24 and so do my co-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. 25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.