Everybody loves a David and Goliath story. In recent days, millions of aspiring Davids took on one of society’s least favorite Goliaths: Wall Street.
It all started with a Reddit page called WallStreetBets. Many of the 3 million amateur investors involved in the chat room decided to come together to coordinate the purchase of stocks in a handful of companies. By doing so, they generated a massive increase in the value of those companies’ stock. GameStop’s market value, for instance, went from $2 billion to $24 billion in just a few days. While this created an enormous profit margin for individual investors, it also nearly bankrupted a hedge fund that had bet against GameStop by short selling their shares.
By all accounts, many folks involved celebrated both outcomes. “You stand for everything that I hated during [the financial crisis],” one user wrote in an open letter to the hedge funds. “You are a firm who makes money off of exploiting a company and manipulating markets and media to your advantage.” One evangelical pastor even drew on Jesus’ parable about the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21) who used his profits to build a bigger barn to describe what was happening. “Since 2008, it feels like Wall Street has had an overabundant harvest, financed by public money, and rather than share the billions with the less fortunate, they’ve built bigger and bigger barns for themselves.”
I certainly see what he means, especially when we consider the likely economic realities behind the parable. When the rich man tears down his barns to build bigger ones, he probably isn’t creating an enormous rainy-day savings fund. He’s more likely opening the first-century equivalent of a one-man hedge fund. But focusing on the way the parable puts financial Goliaths in the crosshairs may cause us to miss another group targeted by Jesus’ strange story: us.
While the vast majority of farmers in Jesus’ day would have been engaged in some form of subsistence agriculture, large landowners were increasingly profiting off grain speculation. Those who had enough of an agricultural surplus could afford to keep their grain off the market while prices were low. Then, when grain was scarce and people were hungry, they could sell their surplus at a massive profit. Such speculation wreaked havoc on the local economy while allowing the opportunist to profit both financially and socially from the chaos he helped create.
Against this background, Jesus condemns at least two aspects of the rich man’s greed. Not only does the rich man fail to share from his abundance, but he apparently plans to use the economic power his abundance affords him to gain further riches for himself at the expense of his neighbors.
Jesus’ parable offers a warning to those who made ludicrous profits while creating a crisis that devastated the global economy. It’s hard to imagine that the Jesus who characterized a first-century agro-entrepreneur as a malicious fool would overlook the way bank CEOs claimed multimillion-dollar Wall Street bonuses while Main Street burned. Surely the Jesus who sniffed out the money-loving Pharisees’ hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) would have something to say about modern-day financial market manipulation.
But notice why Jesus tells the parable in the first place. A man from the crowd asks Jesus to help him get a share of his inheritance. While we don’t know anything certain about this man’s economic status, we do know that the vast majority of Jesus’ audience faced brutal poverty, the likes of which hardly any American can imagine. Carol Wilson argues that a quarter of the population of Palestine in Jesus’ day was so destitute they were “slowly starving to death,” while another 30 percent hovered “precariously near the edge of subsistence.” Only an elite 3 percent of the population was secure against economic poverty. It’s likely, then, that the man asking for help with his inheritance faced serious economic hardship. It’s certain that most of Jesus’ audience did.
It is this primarily poor audience that Jesus warns about the need to “guard themselves against all kinds of greed.” Jesus’ anti-greed parable wasn’t only a warning for the super-rich. It was also a warning about the kind of financial insatiability that Jesus believed even the poor could get caught up in.
As best I can tell, the WallStreetBets folks got involved because they wanted to make money quickly. One of the most popular trading platforms, Robinhood, advertised their services as allowing “people like us” to trade “just like the big guys.” So while these investors’ actions put the squeeze on a hedge fund, their market manipulation also sought to create quick, substantial profits for themselves.
I’m not sure that’s all necessarily sinful. But when we wield the parable of the rich fool as a weapon against the super-rich, we risk missing the way Jesus offered it as a challenge to folks like us.
The danger here is much bigger than this week’s stock market story. The danger is that in the face of a deeply dysfunctional economic system and corruption by the super-rich, middle-class American Christians forget that in global and historical terms, we are the 1 percent.
Every single investor in GameStop lives a life of unimaginable comfort and wealth compared to the vast majority of those Jesus warned about their greed. Most of us are richer than the fictitious rich fool in terms of life expectancy, health, and luxury items. Economically speaking, compared to the typical first-century Jesus-follower, we are kings and pharaohs living lives of unimaginable security and ease. Yet middle-class Christians consistently read Jesus’ warning about the wealthy as applying to somebody else. We, the richest people who have ever lived, read ourselves in the role of the peasant and find somebody further up the economic ladder to play the part of the fool.
We all do this. We talk about being “poor college students” while attending schools that cost enough to feed entire villages in the global south. Pastors and professors like me regularly remind people “we sure don’t do it for the money,” even though the money gives us some of the highest standards of living experienced in human history.
As that Robinhood advertisement makes clear, we often criticize the large-scale behavior of the “big guys” while imitating it in our own economic practices. For years, Christian economist Bob Goudzwaard has warned about the ways that financial markets have gotten out of hand, with devastating effects on the “real economy” at home and abroad. While I wouldn’t claim that all hedge funds are intrinsically immoral, aspects of our contemporary financial markets, like aspects of the grain market in Jesus’ day, demand prophetic confrontation.
But we shouldn’t confuse fighting for a better seat at the blackjack table with confronting an economy addicted to gambling. That’s especially true when either gambler’s loss can wreak havoc on the lives of others. After all, it’s not just Wall Street financiers who invest in hedge funds; pension funds, like the ones that fund the retirements of school teachers and firefighters, do too. We ignore the ways we are the rich fools at our own moral and spiritual peril and at our neighbors’ expense.
Jesus doesn’t tell his flock to beat the rich fool at his own game. He invites them to live an economic life free from greed or fear, storing up treasure in heaven by giving generously to the poor (Luke 12:33).
Such kingdom investments include charity to the destitute, but, as Brian Fikkert, Robby Holt, and I argue in Practicing the King’s Economy, it also includes orienting the whole of one’s economic life toward love of God and love of neighbor.
If we want to invest in Jesus’ kingdom, I suspect there are better ways than squeezing hedge funds. We could invest in black and brown business with the help of lending platforms like WeFunder and Kiva. We could invest our money and social connections in organizations that help the economically poor build wealth through education or homeownership. We could creatively protest some of the dysfunctions of our economic system while remembering that Jesus’ parable is a warning for us as much as it is for financial professionals.
Michael J. Rhodes is an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College and co-author of Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.