Wealth, Empathy, and Compassion

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

I read about some interesting and sobering research this week regarding wealth, empathy, and compassion. Many psychologists have been exploring this topic in recent years. In one study, researchers found that wealthy people had more trouble reading other people’s emotions. Scientists showed 200 adults photos of faces expressing different emotions, and what they found is that people with just a high school education identified the emotions more accurately than people who had a four-year college degree. Another study found that upper-class college students reported feeling less compassion than other students when they watched a video about children suffering from cancer. The heart rates of lower-class students slowed down as they watched the video, which is a physiological sign that someone is experiencing compassion. That same phenomenon was not observed among wealthier students.

A journalist asked one of these researchers, “So what’s your theory? Why this discrepancy?” The psychologist responded that “when you lack institutional support, when you face threats in life, the only way to survive your environment is to connect with other people. You reach out to people more. You form strong social ties. You need them, and they need you. When you’re poorer, you’re helping someone get to work if their car [breaks] down, or looking after their child while they run to the store—and they’re doing the same for you. Humans have this wonderful ability to bond in the face of threat.” Wealth, on the other hand, tends to insulate us from certain kinds of suffering, and therefore also from the humanizing, connecting aspects of overcoming needs together.

But it’s not just that so many wealthy people don’t know people who are poor. The researchers uncovered a line of thinking among the wealthy that says it’s the worthy people who rise to the top. Those who find themselves on the bottom must be there for a reason. In other words, the wealthier we get, these scientists say, the more we believe we deserve it, that we earned it, and that those who struggle have done something wrong. Perhaps people who are less wealthy actually have a more sophisticated view of life, recognizing that where a person ends up is a complex result of education, character, and the opportunities made available to them by wealth—or the lack thereof.

Psychologists have found that as wealth increases, feelings of compassion and empathy tend to go down and feelings of entitlement and self-interest go up. To be sure, it’s not only wealthy people who demonstrate these behaviors, because in fact all of us are tempted to put our own interests above the interests of others. These tendencies are baked into human nature, especially here in the United States, where the American Dream tells us that success in life includes accumulating wealth and achieving material prosperity. But researchers have found that wealth makes it more difficult to recognize the needs of others.

If I’m honest, I’ve begun to notice this in myself. Public transit has been my primary mode of transportation for about the past seven years. Initially, I thought of it as a way to be in solidarity with a part of our community many of us would rather ignore, while at the same time saving a little money and reducing my carbon footprint. As time has gone on, though, I’ve become a bit more jaded. I spend more of my bus rides with my earbuds in my ears, trying to tune out the people around me. Maybe it’s just compassion fatigue from being confronted daily with poverty. But I worry that it’s something darker in my own heart—an impatience with people I’ve begun to believe have made poor choices and are therefore unworthy, a sense of superiority as I’ve seen my own financial position grow stronger, patting myself on the back for all the great progress I’ve made while silently judging others. I worry that my relative wealth has blunted my ability to feel compassion and empathy.

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Jesus lived long before humankind had developed the field of social psychology to help make sense of our attitudes and behaviors. 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 one’s capacity to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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 needs something more, or 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, and toward his neighbor. The rich man falls short 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 wealth diminishes the human capacity for connection.

This is not just a simple lesson that wealth is bad and everything would be alright if we just gave our money away. Jesus is calling for something much more difficult, asking each of us to consider whether wealth keeps us disconnected from others and limits our empathy, causing us to turn in on ourselves or 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.” Jesus calls for a re-orientation that will be difficult and painful to endure, until it results in deeper emotional connections and a wealthier community life.

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. Jesus does not view the rich man as irredeemably evil but 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. Another thing psychologists have found is that small interventions, small changes in people’s behavior, can reorient people toward empathy. Their research shows that simply reminding people of the benefits of cooperation and the advantages of community causes all people—including those who are wealthier—to become more compassionate and egalitarian.

Just one small, first step. You’ve maybe begun to hear about a team that has formed here at Gloria Dei to work on affordable housing issues as a part of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. Beacon is a nonprofit organization here in the Twin Cities that is both an affordable housing developer and a leading advocate for better housing policy at the state legislature. In the months ahead, there will be an opportunity for us to partner with one of Beacon’s affordable housing communities, giving us the opportunity to get to know our neighbors in a new way, and maybe in the process to deepen our capacity for empathy and compassion. We’ll have similar opportunities as we welcome immigrant families who will make a home in Room 99 here in our own building, as we engage with Project Home families working their way out of homelessness in Ramsey County, and as we continue serving bimonthly meals with Loaves and Fishes at the Dorothy Day shelter in downtown St. Paul.Each one of us, no matter how much money we have or don’t have, longs for connection. Taking just one small, first step may lead us to take another step, and then another, and another, until empathy and compassion take root in us and become so firmly established in our hearts that no amount of wealth could stand in the way of meaningful relationships and Christ-like compassion. The truth is, no amount of money could ever surpass the value of knowing others deeply and being known ourselves—being liberated from our fixation on wealth and more powerfully connected to one another, woven together into the one human community God intends for us to be.


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).

Carolyn Gregoire, “How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel,” in Greater Good Magazine, published February 8, 2018, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_money_changes_the_way_you_think_and_feel.

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

Dacher Keltner, “Does Wealth Reduce Compassion?,” in Greater Good Magazine, published December 17, 2015, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_wealth_reduce_compassion.

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

Jason Marsh, “You Can’t Buy Empathy,” in Greater Good Magazine, published December 14, 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/you_cant_buy_empathy.


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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