“Can a leopard change its spots?” This saying originally comes from the Bible and has passed into English proverbial lore as surely as many other things from the Bible have. It comes from the prophecy of Jeremiah and it bears witness to the sombre realism of much of that book. It is perhaps but a short step from honest realism to weary cynicism. I suspect that most people today in our culture truly believe that a leopard cannot change its spots. Of course, they are right in one sense. Just as any animal cannot change its markings by its own will, (even the chameleon has no control over its colour changes), so, perhaps, most humans cannot voluntarily bring about deep and abiding changes in their personalities and behaviours simply by willpower alone, if at all. However, this is not the last word on the matter. People of faith insist that revolutionary changes can happen in human life when God is involved. When He intervenes, such changes are possible. Usually He requires that we play our part as well, but occasionally, for such is His providence, He turns everything upside down entirely by His own choice, initiative and action. There is a good example of this in the gospel today. The Gerasene demoniac had little or no control over his own actions and precious little rationality. Christ intervened to liberate him with no human agency being involved at all. The leopard changed his spots by the unmerited grace of God.
Classically, this aalso happened to Saul who became Paul on the Damascus Road. There Saul was, breathing threats against the believers, carting them off to prison, persecuting the Church, and then God totally turned round his life. Let us listen again to his own words about this matter in his letter to the Church at Galatia:-
“(For) you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But (when) it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles.” (Galatians 1)
By the grace and revelation of God, therefore, Saul did indeed change his spots and he became thereby a new creation, Paul. This great persecutor of the Church became the great defender of the Faith. Imagine what a wonderful testimony to the power of God this was to the early Church itself. Those who had witnessed what Jesus had done to change people’s lives in His earthly ministry and life now saw that exactly the same thing was still happening by the power of the Holy Spirit, even amongst the enemies of God! All over the place leopards were changing their spots!
We should perhaps notice something important about St. Paul’s own testimony here. Although he knew that God was calling him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles he did not immediately jump into this task assuming that he had got the God-given right overnight to change the direction of the Church’s mission which hitherto had been, in the main, confined to Israel and Samaria. The Apostle reading today makes it clear that he spent some considerable time in Arabia, (what we now know as Jordan), and Damascus before going up to Jerusalem. Although his life had radically changed, he knew that he had to put in some hard work in getting better acquainted with the teachings of Christ and to be rightly guided by the Apostles before launching out from Jerusalem to the whole Roman world. This also witnessed to God’s power over the spots of sin. Where once there had been arrogance, now there was humility and openness to learn. In other words his conversion “stuck.” The spots were not painted over, they were utterly transformed.
Now, not everyone gets the kind of conversion St Paul experienced and it would be foolish of us to think either that this was normative or even desirable for everyone. The grace of God tailors itself both to our own personalities and situations and all this within and towards His great plan for the redemption of creation. Any one of us though, whether we have been touched mightily by God or gently, has the possibility of resisting the on-going work of God in our lives. However if we are smart, we do well to cooperate with that, for therein lies not only our salvation but also the salvation of many.
Let us not be small-minded about the great work God can do through us if we are willing. Let us not be cynical, hopeless or despairing about human nature itself or God’s power to make things good, to make all things new. Let us go out into the jungle of this world with a great expectation of seeing leopards with stripes and tigers with spots, if God so wills. Let us take hope that even in our own lives, acquainted as we are with our sin and weakness, that God can make a wonderful work of glory from the raw material of our brokenness, if that is we will but yield to His just and gentle rule. We also then can become living proof of that unheard of thing … God can spot-change leopards!