Monopoly, Wealth, and the Corrosion of Our Humanity

Today’s scripture readings:
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31
Sermon audio:

A social psychologist named Paul Piff invited the audience at his TED talk to imagine playing a game of Monopoly. But not a regular game of Monopoly. He said, imagine a game of Monopoly that has been rigged, designed so that, right off the bat, you’ve got more money than your opponent, more chances to move around the board, and greater access to resources. (As if the game of Monopoly needed something to make it more unforgiving and frustrating.) He invites the audience to consider: How might the experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game change the way you think about yourself and how you think about other players?

This psychologist and his team actually ran a study to examine that very question. They brought dozens of pairs of strangers into a lab, and with the flip of a coin, they randomly assigned one of the players to be a rich player in a rigged game of Monopoly. That player got twice as much money to start, collected double the reward each time they passed Go, and got to roll more often, giving them more opportunities to advance their piece around the board. Then, watching through hidden cameras, the psychologists observed the game that unfolded. In the TED Talk, you get to watch actual footage of several pairs of players, and you can see for yourself what happened. As the game went on, some dramatic differences began to emerge between the rich players and the players who weren’t so lucky. For one thing, the rich players started to move around the board more loudly, actually smacking the board with their piece as they went around. You can see the rich players showing signs of dominance, making displays of power and celebration. The researchers even put a bowl of pretzels off to the side of the Monopoly board, and they found that it was the rich players who kept reaching again and again for the pretzels. All of those things were kind of humorous. But as the game went on, a darker picture started to emerge. The psychologists observed that the rich players actually started to behave more rudely toward the less fortunate players, becoming less and less sensitive to the poor players’ plight and more obnoxious in showcasing how well they were doing themselves. But here’s what’s maybe most stunning: Afterward, when the researchers asked the players to reflect on their experience playing the game, the rich players talked about all they had done to buy their properties and achieve success in the game, conveniently forgetting about the first coin toss and all the other benefits that had put them in that privileged position in the first place.

The psychologists who carried out this study say that, even though this was just a simulation in a silly game of Monopoly, their findings are consistent with what other studies have shown: that as our wealth increases, our feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and our feelings of entitlement and self-interest go up. They’ve found that wealthier people are less aware of the needs of people around them and more invested in their own success. The psychologists are careful to point out that it’s not only wealthy people who demonstrate these behaviors, that in fact all of us struggle with the temptation to put our own interests above the interests of others. They’ve learned that these tendencies are baked into human nature, and all the more so here in the United States, where the American Dream tells us that the ultimate goal in life is to accumulate wealth and achieve material prosperity. But researchers have found that the wealthier we are, the more likely we are to turn in on ourselves and pursue our own personal success, to the detriment of others.

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Jesus lived long before we had the game of Monopoly to teach us about human nature, and long before humankind had developed the field of social psychology to help make sense of our behavior. But reading today’s Gospel lesson, I think Jesus understood intuitively what modern researchers have learned about the power of wealth, how the accumulation of money and property produces a spiritual infection that constricts our capacity to love our neighbor.

When the rich man in today’s story approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing.” But some have suggested that a better translation of this line is, “You lack in one thing.” It’s a subtle difference but an important one. What the man lacks is not one thing. It’s not that he’s just one action short of perfection, as though he could just do one more thing to satisfy the requirements for eternal life. To say the man is lacking in one thing is to say that what the man lacks is a state of being. He is lacking in a quality of character. Jesus finds this man lacking in his orientation toward the world, lacking in his orientation toward his neighbor. Where the rich man falls short is in his attentiveness toward the other, in his ability to really see the people around him, to recognize their needs, and to respond with compassion. Jesus seems to be saying that, like the rich player in that rigged game of Monopoly who was unable to empathize with the one who was less fortunate, the rich man’s wealth has diminished his capacity for connection.

I don’t think this is just a simple lesson that wealth is bad and everything would be alright if we just gave our money away, although that would make for a really convenient sermon on this day when we begin collecting pledges for the year ahead. I think Jesus is calling for something much more difficult, asking each of us to consider how wealth keeps us disconnected from others and limits our empathy, how it causes us to turn in on ourselves and overlook the plight of our neighbor. That’s a much harder lesson. You can understand why, “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.” What Jesus is calling for is a re-orientation that will be difficult and painful to endure.

It’s worth noticing that, in verse 21, the author says Jesus “loved” the rich man. Actually, this man is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark singled out as being “loved” by Jesus. Which is just to say, I don’t think Jesus views the rich man as intentionally evil. Rather, Jesus feels compassion for him. Jesus understands that this man is held captive by a power that deprives him of humanity, and as always, Jesus wants to set him free. Jesus invites the man to step into freedom, to be liberated from the forces that keep him detached and rob him of deep human connection.

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That’s a daunting invitation, to leave what we have behind and step into freedom. Maybe the first step is simply to take a first step. Not trying to do it all at once, but doing just one small thing, trying on one new behavior, that starts us on a different path. One small, first step. Actually, that’s the advice given by the researchers behind that Monopoly study. They have found that small interventions, small changes in people’s behavior, small nudges in certain directions, can reorient people toward empathy. Their research shows that simply reminding people of the benefits of cooperation and the advantages of community causes wealthier people to become more compassionate and egalitarian.

Just one small, first step. Maybe it is making a pledge to the church to support our mission of proclaiming the love of Jesus and seeking justice for all people. Or maybe it’s giving of your time, helping us serve a meal to homeless neighbors at Loaves and Fishes later this month—let me know if you want to help with that—or helping with our Highland Park Elementary Weekend Backpack Program, or volunteering to help elect candidates to office who are serious about eradicating poverty and hunger and tackling homelessness in our communities. Maybe taking just one small, first step will lead us to take another step, and then another, and another, until giving away what we have becomes a way of life.

Learning to share what we have. Maybe that’s just what we need in a world that sometimes feels too much like a rigged game of Monopoly.


Resources consulted:

Charles L. Campbell, “Mark 10:17-31: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

David B. Howell, “Mark 10:17-31: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Karoline Lewis, “What Do You Lack?” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5232.

Paul Piff, “Does Money Make You Mean?”, TEDxMarin, October 2013, https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_piff_does_money_make_you_mean/transcript#t-127531.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3795.


The featured image for this post, “Money!” is copyright (c) 2005 Tracy O and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.


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