August 20, 2023 Proper 15 Year-A
Clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees are described in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus was always very critical of Jewish tradition as constructed and enforced by the established religious scholars of His day. His actions and his teachings often angered them. Recently I read that because of the growing power of Orthodox Jews in Israel, if a woman is in labour on the Sabbath, observant Jewish doctors and nurses are legally entitled to refuse to care for her. One could easily imagine that a woman and her baby could die under such circumstances. I am sure that we would all agree that this is not something that Jesus would approve of.
All of us are familiar with the famous passage from Mark 2: 27: “the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.”
Since coming to Nara (for some reason, this was not so apparent in Okinawa), I have been made aware of resemblances between mainland Japanese people, at least in Kansai, and the Jews of Jesus’ time, at least the Pharisees. Both venerate rules-rules-rules. The complex and exacting rules concerning the disposal of garbage is the most striking example. What I call “gomi-totalitarianism.” It isn’t that proper recycling of trash isn’t a worthy enterprise, but the humourlessness of people’s attitude, the thinly veiled moralism that judges transgressors of the elaborate gomi rules, strikes me as grim and oppressive. How can we have a mutually-supportive community of neighbours if some petty local official is always looking into everyone else’s (transparent) garbage bags?
Japanese people often say they are proud of being a “democracy,” but gomi-totalitarianism reminds me of the People’s Republic of China, or even North Korea.
It might seem like a long stretch to connect Jesus’ injunction on the Sabbath with a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro is not generally considered to be a religious writer, in this book he has crafted a remarkable character, the butler Stevens, who seems to embody all the short-sightedness of the Pharisees not only in his conscientious performing the duties of a butler, but in dedicating himself body-and-soul to that profession. By the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that Stevens is truly a lost soul, locked up in a cage of his own construction which cuts him off from other human beings.
Before World War II, British aristocrats and other members of the elite often lived in “great houses” which were staffed by large numbers of non-elite servants. These great houses have often provided grist for the mills of 21st century pop culture, including the popular TV series Downton Abbey. These servants were managed by a “butler,” who often came from a lineage of servants going back several generations. Stevens’ father, for example, was also a butler, and a “perfect” one at that, the rather distant and cool inspiration for his son’s lifelong career.
Before World War II and the social levelling which took place after 1945, Britain had as many as 30,000 butlers managing much larger numbers of male and female junior servants – although not all of these butlers worked at great houses. Because the prewar British elites took socializing among themselves very seriously, the social season involved an endless round of dinners, stay-overs and sporting events, which butlers and their subordinates were charged with managing. Being a butler was a 24/7 job, not only because there were many social events to organize, but because “his lordship’s” every wish needed to be anticipated and promptly satisfied. If at 3 am in the morning his lordship’s toes were chilled by the winter cold, his butler had to be there with warm, woolly socks.
Ishiguro depicts Stevens as constantly meditating upon the question: “what makes a great butler?” He concludes that the quality most needed by a butler is dignity:
. . . this ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon
the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their
professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such
persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small
push, a slight stumble, and the façade will drop off to reveal the actor
underneath. The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to
inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost . . . They wear
their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit; he will
not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze (pp.
For most of his career, Stevens was butler to Lord Darlington, a person of great political influence who became one of many British aristocrats who cultivated close relations with Hitler and the Third Reich in the 1930s. However, Stevens serves Darlington unquestioningly, not criticizing his employer for his pro-Nazi proclivities (his personal friendship, for example, with Hitler’s foreign minister von Ribbentrop) or his anti-Semitism (Darlington orders Stevens to fire two lady servants simply because they are Jewish). Stevens is not a Nazi fanatic but more like the dedicated engineer in a munitions factory who designs and oversees the manufacture of bombs containing poison gas. His goal is not to destroy a hateful enemy, but to be the most perfect engineer he can possibly be by making sure that 100% of his bombs are 100% lethal. Someone in the spirit of Dr. Werner von Braun, whose genius for rocket science served both the Nazis and the United States.
Stevens’ commitment to his role as the perfect butler impoverishes his private life. Pleasing his employer is utmost, and everything else is secondary – or not counted at all. He develops a close and collaborative work relationship with the manager of the lady servants, Miss Kenton, who is both attracted to Stevens and repulsed by his cold professionalism (in, for example, the firing of the Jewish servants). Early in their acquaintanceship, Miss Kenton brings him some flowers to brighten up his dark and dreary office.
‘It’s a shame the sun doesn’t get in here. The walls are even a little damp,
are they not, Mr. Stevens?’
. . .
She put her vase down on the table in front of me, then glancing around
my pantry again said: ‘if you wish, Mr. Stevens, I might bring in some
more cuttings for you.’
‘Miss Kenton, I appreciate your kindness. But this is not a room of enter-
tainment. I am happy to have distractions kept to a minimum . . . It [his
room] has served me perfectly well this far as it is, Miss Kenton’ (pp. 54,
A cold put-down. While Miss Kenton’s bringing Stevens flowers might seem to be the perfect beginning to a Hollywood romance, his insistence on their work coming first builds a wall between himself and his female colleague that is never breached. Stevens’ dedication to managing household affairs even prevents him from being with his father on his deathbed, and causes him to forget offering condolences to Miss Kenton on the death of a beloved relative. At long last, she marries someone else and leaves Darlington Hall. When they meet again many years later, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) is committed to her marriage, although she confesses to Stevens that “you get to thinking about a different life, a better life, you might have had . . . I get to thinking what kind of life I might have had with you, Mr. Stevens” (p. 251).
Stevens, the narrator, then writes: “it took me a moment or two in which to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover . . . their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking” (p. 252).
In the final pages of the novel, Stevens seems to feel genuine – though understated – regret that he had allowed his self-made ideal of the “perfect butler” to deprive him of intimate human connections of any kind. He even begins to understand that his service to the pro-Hitler Lord Darlington might have been a mistake. As he confesses to a fellow (retired) butler: “You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile” (p. 256).
Among literary critics, there is something of a mini-dispute concerning Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Is it a critique of British culture, or a certain small subculture of it, or of Japanese culture? The author after all was born in postwar Nagasaki and raised by Japanese parents, though he has spent most of his life in Britain. I cannot help thinking that Stevens’ values are very similar to those of the dedicated salaryman, who is loyal to his boss and company no matter the consequences for society as a whole, his family or himself. Pride in one’s profession can be a good thing, whether one is a teacher, software engineer or a cook at a ramen shop. But in this country, the “ethic of sincerity” – which seems to be the equivalent of Stevens’ idea of “dignity” – seems to fence people off from each other, and from matters important to living a humane life. Especially here in the Kansai area, I find that people are . . . busy-busy-busy all the time, even when they are supposed to be “enjoying” leisure.
Of course, not all people labelled “salarymen” in Japan are like Stevens, and the ethic of the “perfect butler” also seems common in other industrialized countries, including the United States. In America, “workism” has become a major delusion: the idea that your job must be your “passion,” it must constitute your identity almost 100%. Along, of course, with “race,” another peculiar American obsession.
Last Sunday, I was sitting in a Starbucks located at the Koriyama shopping mall having my usual caffe latte. I noticed that one of the baristas was a trim, well-groomed middle-aged woman in a neat green uniform, who was constantly in motion making up liquid concoctions and smiling pleasantly at all the customers she dealt with, even making sure to put just the right amount of whipped cream on top of somebody’s fancy drink. Not too much or too little. She handled the whipped cream dispenser the way an artist might handle a paintbrush. I wondered: after her long hours of work are over, what does she think? What does she feel? Does she ever have a time of rest and recreation? Can she ever get out from under the dead weight of the “ethic of sincerity”?
Does she have a Sabbath, to recreate herself? Not necessarily on Sunday, but any time?