Honk if You Love Money

As I sat at a red light in our neighborhood last week, waiting to make a right-hand turn, my attention was focused on traffic coming from my left. As I waited, I committed a grievous sin. I didn’t notice that the oncoming drivers were slowing down because their light had turned red and mine had turned green. My less-than-instantaneous reaction prompted  the driver in back of me to honk his horn. 

It wasn’t a gentle, toot, as if to say, “Excuse me but you may not have noticed that the light is now green.” It was a full-on, lingering blast, telling me in no uncertain terms that I had no right to be on the planet, and certainly not on this particular road. 

“Good morning to you, too, neighbor,” I thought. Or something like that.

It reminded me of a study I read about in which researchers spent many hours observing drivers at traffic lights. They wanted to know what typically happens in situations similar to the one I just described. What happens when the driver in the first position waiting at a traffic light doesn’t notice right away when the light turns green? Will driver number two, the one right behind driver number one, honk or not? 

What the researchers discovered, after watching this scene play out time and time again, is that what mattered most was the type of car being driven by driver number one. If it was a newer car, an expensive car, a prestigious car, then the driver in position two tended not to honk. But if it was an older car, a not-so-expensive car, a not prestigious car — perhaps a 2010 Honda Accord, for example (ahem) — then the driver in position two tended to honk.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? What do you think it says about our relationship with money? Does it say that we respect money? That we value people who have a lot of money more than those who don’t?

It brings to mind the words from James 2:1-4 (TLB):

Dear brothers, how can you claim that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, if you show favoritism to rich people and look down on poor people?

If a man comes into your church dressed in expensive clothes and with valuable gold rings on his fingers, and at the same moment another man comes in who is poor and dressed in threadbare clothes, and you make a lot of fuss over the rich man and give him the best seat in the house and say to the poor man, “You can stand over there if you like or else sit on the floor”—well, judging a man by his wealth shows that you are guided by wrong motives.

The traffic light study also reminds me that appearances and reality are sometimes not at all acquainted with each other. That point was made very clearly by the authors of my favorite secular money management book, “The Millionaire Next Door.” What the title conveys is what the authors’ research found: Oftentimes, the truly wealthy are people who don’t necessarily look the part, and just as often, people who do look the part are actually living beyond their means.

Still, since we don’t really know how people are doing financially, our regard for people, and unfortunately, our treatment of them, is probably driven more than we realize by how they appear to be doing. 

Can you think of situations where you have shown deference to someone because of how they were dressed, what they drove, or where they lived? Or perhaps situations where someone has treated you better (or worse) than someone else because of how you were dressed, what you drive, or where you live?

It would be good for all of us to be mindful of this. When we spend time with a friend who we know is especially wealthy and another who isn’t. When we’re going about our daily lives and interacting with people we don’t know personally. And yes, when we’re in the second position at a traffic light and the person in front of us doesn’t notice when the light turns green.

6 Responses to Honk if You Love Money

  1. Kathryn November 19, 2022 at 11:42 AM #

    I’ve been visiting different churches, trying to enjoy the fellowship of other Believers rather than doing all my interaction and study online. It matters how I dress. The evidence of bias is there in more ways than only the love of money but that’s a big one. The biggest concerns seem to be not only “how much cash can you contribute?” but also “do you represent a potential expense?”. The second one is uglier.

    • Matt Bell November 19, 2022 at 12:47 PM #

      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience, Kathryn. That’s not at all how church should be! But churches are filled with imperfect people. As wrong as it is, we are all prone to making certain assumptions about people. My hope is that you will give some of the churches you have visited a second chance. I trust that as you get plugged into one of those churches and get to know people, you will find a community that truly does want to love and serve others well.

      • Kathryn November 19, 2022 at 3:38 PM #

        It’s not hard to imagine that there is and always will be a large element of compassion-fatigue for all of us, not to mention personal anxiety related to our own problems and those of people in whose well-being we have a vested interest. And I have been learning to accept that the whole “all have sinned” and 1 John 1:8,10 thing is across the board…and includes me! So, I’m trying to learn to be low-key about my own problems (difficult when old dental restorations are failing and my smile is gap-toothed) and non-reactive to what makes me uncomfortable. Two things help… knowing that I do my own best to help others less able to take care of themselves than I am and, especially, turning to Jesus when I’m craving rescue myself. So much of being in Christian fellowship (I only got started in 2011, late in life, so I’m a relative newbie) seems to be about “spitting out the bones”.

        • Matt Bell November 22, 2022 at 9:17 PM #

          Those are two really good steps, Kathryn. If you don’t mind, I’d suggest a third: join a small group. We have both led and joined groups where we didn’t know anyone, and through some of those experiences we have built long-lasting friendships. I think many people are hungry for connection. See what’s available at some of the churches you have visited. That’s my recommendation anyway.

  2. Barb Good November 15, 2022 at 1:27 PM #

    My husband worked at a hospital in two different positions. As a warehouse manager, he wore a uniform. Later as a buyer, he wore a shirt and tie.
    He saw a different response from those who passed him in the hall. In the shirt and tie, more people acknowledged him.

    • Matt Bell November 15, 2022 at 2:11 PM #

      That’s really interesting, Barb—especially that it was so evident. In some situations, I’m sure this “wealth bias” is more noticeable than in others, but we’re probably all guilty of it to some degree.

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