A recent study that I read shows a direct correlation between one’s perceived social status and one’s willingness to help others. The study by Ana Guinote, et al, (National Academy of Sciences, “Social Status Modulates Prosocial Behavior and Egalitarianism in Preschool Children and Adults”) finds that students who were told they were of a high status were less likely to help others. And, likewise, students who were told they were of below average status showed a higher incidence of caring for others in need. In one example, college students were told their department was the best in the university; a different group was informed it was one of the worst. At the end of the session, the experimenter “accidentally” spilled a box of pens on the floor. Observers of the experiment recorded that the students in the “worst” group picked up more pens than those in the “elite” group. Another experiment manipulated similar groupings of students (the best and the worst). Both groups were asked to write down their life goals. The “worst” group listed more altruistic goals than the “best” group. In yet another experiment, two groups of students were told they did the best or the worst on an arbitrary test. They then were asked to talk with a group of incoming students about how to pick a good roommate. The “worst” students smiled more and acted more warmly and empathetically. The “best” students were more focused on displaying their own competence and knowledge.
This study reminded me of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told a story about a man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Later on, a Temple priest walked by the injured man but did not help. Likewise, a Pharisee walked by but didn’t help. A third man, a Samaritan, walked by, saw the man and made an extraordinary effort to help him. In Biblical times, the Temple priest and the Pharisee probably self-categorized as the “best” and the Samaritan would have thought of himself as of a much lower status in society. Isn’t it interesting that a behavior study published in late 2014 identifies behavior described by Jesus two thousand years earlier.
Along the same lines, letters written by Saint Paul use the word “elect” to describe believers of Christ. Yet, when he uses that word, he also reminds believers that they are dependent upon God’s grace and that we should serve one another. It’s as if Paul understood the human tendency to become pharisaical and walk past people in need. Perhaps this is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during his last meal before crucifixion. This group was certainly Jesus’ elect but they were chosen to serve. His humility was meant as an important lesson to them.
How big a stumbling block it is for the confident believer to live into God’s love and then forget about others because of a heightened sense of self importance. Perhaps that is why Jesus commanded us to love God AND love our neighbor. In that command, there is nothing about high or low social status or our perception of the same. Perhaps that is why Jesus ends the Samaritan parable with the command, “Go and do likewise.”