Read Mark 2:14-17
14 As Jesus went on his way, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at his desk in the tax office and he said to him, “Follow me!”
15-16 Levi got up and followed him. Later, when Jesus was sitting at dinner in Levi’s house, a large number of tax-collectors and disreputable folk came in and joined him and his disciples. For there were many such people among his followers. When the scribes and Pharisees saw him eating in the company of tax-collectors and outsiders, they remarked to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”
17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “It is not the fit and flourishing who need the doctor, but those who are ill. I did not come to invite the ‘righteous’, but the ‘sinners’. (JBP)
As a reaction against aggressive, ‘push the gospel down the throat’ sort of evangelism, there came a plea for ‘friendship evangelism’. The idea had some wisdom. The best sort of Christian witness and dialogue happens in the context of relationships of mutual respect. Instead of marketing a product by trying to sell it to strangers, we were encouraged to develop relationships and let the witness happen within such a relationship.
And yet there were a couple of problems with the approach. One is that it was rather too easy to simply enjoy the friendship and not worry too much about any sort of discussion of faith. The other problem was in the other direction: friendship was pursued merely as a means to an end. In order to ‘sell the product’ I need to make a friend and so the friendship is a marketing ploy in a world already full of them.
The best sort of Christian witness arises out of existing relationships. But those relationships have to be authentic and not merely functional. And as Jesus shows us, the relationships may well be with those who we might otherwise consider beyond our social sphere. Jesus didn’t shy away from faith issues. Nor did he seem to have a reputation as a religious marketeer. ‘Sinners’ seemed to enjoy his company. He was known as a friend of sinners.
Love of people and love of God came perfectly together in him. He loved people enough to befriend them. He loved God enough to invite those same people into God’s family.