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JesusShe could be the patron saint for Women Who Speak Up. Those once taught that the cardinal virtue was don't-rock-the-boat admire her and her tribe. She is feisty and outrageous, and though the gospel doesn't record this detail, she probably wore a wild, flashy, purple hat.

We don't know what prompted her, any more than we fully understand what made Rosa Parks keep her seat on the bus. Maybe she was tired: of being dismissed due to ethnicity and gender, or spending sleepless nights with a sick child. Maybe her daughter had an ugly seizure that morning, some hideous progression of her illness that compelled mom to say, "Enough. I've HAD it!"

Nor do we know exactly what drew her to Jesus: his other healings? His reputation for compassion? If she expected kindness, she must have been disappointed by his rebuff. "But he did not answer her at all" (Mt. 15:23) is one of the most chilling sentences in the gospel. What's remarkable about this woman is her refusal to give up. Many of us would slink away like wimps; she stands fast. When the disciples' rudeness is added to Jesus' silence, it must feel like a brick wall toppling onto her head. But driven by love, she persists.

To be fair to Jesus and his disciples, she comes at a bad time. Mark's comment sounds like Jesus needs introvert time: "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there" (v. 24). People who crave solitude know what an intrusion she is: shouting and obnoxious. But she demonstrates the boldness of those who have nothing to lose. If Jesus denies her, it probably represents one more in a long line of refusals. Yet how could she trudge back home to the desperately ill daughter without trying?

Perhaps the high stakes are what make her conversation with Jesus so direct and earthy. Indeed, she is one of the few in scripture who exchange clever banter with him. When he slips into the metaphor of not throwing the children's food to the dogs, she keeps up. Robust and vital, she can play the same game: "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (Mt. 15:27). His capitulation is marvelous to behold. Jesus has the great soul of one who can admit he's wrong; he had drawn the borders around his kingdom too tightly. We can imagine him grin and slap his forehead as he says, "Woman, great is your faith!"

She lives on in contemporary whistleblowers:

  1. Erin Brockovich who traced the illnesses of California residents to leakage of toxic Chromium 6 into the groundwater from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and won the largest injury settlement in U.S. history: $333 million for sick people.
  2. Sherron Watkins who alerted the public to the dirty dealings of Enron
  3. Barbara Blaine who, with other survivors of pedophilia, opened the curtain of secrecy shrouding priests' sexual abuse of children.

Countless, anonymous women of courage fight for children's rights to education and medical care, attack the corporations that pollute air and water, question whether war resolves conflicts.

These women hand on the "outspoken" gene as if in a grand matrilineage. Seeing evil or oppression, they speak, regardless of what it costs them. They are not intimidated by gatekeepers like the disciples, by attorneys' stall tactics, or by those wanting to preserve the corporation's reputation. They run the risk of looking foolish; they easily admit to not having "complete scientific data."

And all of us are better because of them. Without the Canaanite woman, we might never have glimpsed the petulant or playful sides of Jesus. Without later whistleblowers, the powerful would stay arrogantly entrenched and the voiceless would sink lower on the human heap.

We can't help wondering if the Canaanite woman's daughter followed in her footsteps. Did she live from a deep pool of gratitude to Jesus for her cure? Did she call attention to injustice when she saw it? Was she as fearless as her mom when her turn came to speak up? Did she excel at witty verbal sparring too?

In one sense, it's speculation. But in another, we are all daughters of the Canaanite woman, called to follow her model. When opportunities arise, let's exercise those vocal chords. Let's dust off the purple hats.

This piece previously appeared in St. Anthony's Messenger. Reprinted by permission of the author.