Do you need to rediscover the gift of mercy?

When Pope Francis opened the Holy Door in St Peter's Basilica it marked the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.Reuters

Jesus said to the woman: "Let the children be fed first – for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." (Mark 7:28)

The Roman Catholic Church has just begun what it calls an "extraordinary jubilee of mercy" running from this month until November next year.

According to the Pope, it's all about emphasising mercy and the need to "gaze" upon it. But what does that mean in practice? As we continue our pilgrimage through Mark's Gospel, we discover a vivid example of it in Jesus' ministry, as a Gentile woman comes to him and begs for the healing of her daughter (Mark 7:24-25).

It was controversial for Jesus to talk with her. For one thing, she was a Gentile (v26) – a non-Jew – and so according to the religious establishment Jesus should not have had anything to do with her. Moreover, she was a woman. As Sinclair Ferguson writes: "In the ancient world, this was a combination of need beneath the dignity of any true rabbi."

But Jesus has just said before this incident that it is what is going on in our hearts which is important (v14-23). Jesus offers hope and mercy for all people of all nations – to all who truly hear Him and humbly respond in faith. And this woman hears – and opens her heart to Him, pleading for her daughter.

Jesus' response at first sight seems rather unmerciful."First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs," he says (v27). Is he saying this woman is no more than a domestic pet who is not worth even a doggy bag after supper? But if we picture Jesus saying it with a raised eyebrow and provocative twinkle in his eye, we may get closer to the mark. It would seem he is adapting an existing Jewish proverb (which was indeed offensive, referring to Jews as children and Gentiles as dogs) and using it ironically and teasingly to draw her on.

And this courageous woman goes for it. She gets the hint, demonstrates that she really does have faith in him, and responds in kind. "Sir – or Lord," she says, "Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs!" Touché! Jesus is impressed; his provocative irony has been parried with a feisty, faith-filled yet humble response. "For saying that," he tells her, "you may go – the demon has left your daughter." She had great faith in him. The key is in verse 25 – she heard about Jesus, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Her gender and nationality didn't matter – because Jesus offers mercy for all people of all nations.

Perhaps you are not a very religious person; maybe you feel an outsider. Come, like this woman, to Jesus, with the same attitude she had – because he offers mercy for you as well! As the American preacher DL Moody once said: "Jesus sent no one away empty – except those who were full of themselves."

Perhaps you have been a Christian for many years. Are you still coming to Jesus with the same approach as this woman? It's possible our hearts have grown hard: "Pride stiffens the knees so they will not bow down, and muzzles our voice so that we do not cry out in humble supplication," says David Garland.

A prayer used in some Anglican communion services sums it up so well, putting the woman's bold yet humble approach to Jesus into words we can all use: "We do not presume to come to this your Table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your Table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy."

So let us, now, like this woman, approach the throne of grace with boldness, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our own times of need. Through Christ, we can do that any time, at any place, and in any year! And then let's pass on that mercy to others.

The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex.