What GameStop Has to Do With the Parable of the Rich Fool

Just because I invested in GameStop doesn’t mean I’m a David battling a Goliath.

An illustration of Rembrandt's Parable of the Rich fool with a video game controller.
Wiki commons / The Atlantic

About the author: Justin Speak is a youth pastor in Huntington Beach, CA.

This hasn’t been a typical month for the New York Stock Exchange—or for me. An unexpected battle between retail investors and a few prominent hedge funds over GameStop has brought disorienting volatility to the whole market. I am one of those retail investors; my family saw a return of $1,200 and counting on a $35 investment in GameStop. But things got really intense when I explained my perspective as a youth pastor and an amateur investor on Hallie Jackson’s MSNBC morning show.

In my plaid shirt, I defaulted to what comes naturally, and linked the economic events to a parable Jesus tells in Luke 12. In the parable, Jesus describes a rich man who, with no concern for his less fortunate neighbors, builds bigger and bigger barns to store his overabundant harvest. After that interview, I started getting calls from bookers at CNN and Fox News, who wanted a repeat performance.

While I believe that Jesus has a lot to say about wealth and wealth inequality—as if my speaking for two uninterrupted minutes about it on national television didn’t make that clear—I also think that giving in to the temptation to frame the narrative in terms of another, more popular biblical story is a mistake. Major outlets including The New York Times and Fox News have compared the GameStop saga to David and Goliath: the menacing giant of Big Investment defeated by the humble and crafty youthfulness of a subreddit. That framing is not quite right—and certainly not what I envisioned when I brought up Jesus’s rich fool. What’s more, the narrative of David and Goliath takes too much moral pressure off people like me who have participated in what’s likely a stock bubble.

Let me back up. I assume that you are not especially familiar with Reddit or the now notorious r/WallStreetBets forum. The participants do not present themselves as respectable sources of investing information. They proudly refer to themselves as “dumb apes” and resort to calling both their biggest winners and their worst losers names that you might overhear your teenager yelling while playing Call of Duty with friends. Understanding what people are saying on the message board requires a sort of modern-day Rosetta Stone to translate the various memes and emojis—diamond hands, rocket ships, moons—that have specific meanings and connotations. The “dumb apes” end nearly every post with an explicit caveat to the effect that “this is not financial advice.” One recent contributor noted that his price target for GameStop was $1,600 a share. The professional experience grounding this opinion? Twenty-five years of welding and fabrication.

If the forum is more passionate than professional, it’s also infectious. My wife, Riane, and I decided to take the risk of investing $35 in GameStop options at market open on Friday, January 22. A short two hours later, we sold those options for $1,250. Had we held on to them for just two more hours, they would have been worth $7,000. But we were far from disappointed. Our two hours of profits were worth my week’s salary as a pastor. At that point, we converted those gains into 10 shares of GameStop at a cost of $61 each, using the rest to buy a Caillou iPad game for our 3-year-old, to get a new bed for ourselves, and to tithe.

Did I feel good about turning a profit at Wall Street’s game? Absolutely. But I did not think to myself, We GameStop investors are like David, taking down Goliath.

Unlike in the Bible, David here is not a single and transparently well-motivated hero. Although a majority of the participants in the GameStop drama may be individual retail investors, no small amount of the money “betting” on the company has come from hedge funds and multimillionaires.

More important, the Goliath of the biblical account is a clear agent of evil, taunting both God and God’s people—a figure whose defeat is unambiguously good. We don’t have to worry about whether our opposition to Goliath has put us on the side of the angels or the demons. In our present story, the hedge funds that have taken up short positions against GameStop will have to be our Goliath. Although I am deeply concerned about the ability of Wall Street, as it presently operates, to contribute to the common good, that is some distance away from the view that hedge funds are an unambiguous evil that we can destroy without conscience.

Further, the hedge fund is not just its manager. Many private individuals have their financial well-being tied up in these funds. They count on returns on their investments to send children to college, to support their retirement, and to contribute philanthropically. If the hedge funds that have shorted GameStop to the point of creating this bubble are defeated by Redditors and retail traders (a result that is looking more and more unlikely), then the people who have invested with firms such as Melvin Capital will pay the financial price. Perhaps no one should invest their life savings in complex derivative markets. Still, doing so surely doesn’t make one an agent of the kind of evil we can remorselessly destroy.

Ultimately, my commitment to the way of Jesus involves a corresponding commitment to loving all people, including hedge-fund managers. And here’s where the distinction between the story of David and Goliath and the parable of Luke 12 comes in: Loving a hedge-fund manager might very well involve seeking the destruction of his method of building bigger and bigger barns, but it cannot involve a gleeful celebration of his loss.

The GameStop phenomenon is not a tale of good versus evil. What the world of WallStreetBets reveals is a widespread desire for freer and more-democratic access to the mechanisms of wealth creation that is consistent with the common good—the kind of pursuit of the common good that could legitimately draw a Christian pastor to join the cause. But I am no expert, and that narrative should be laid out by the economists and policy advocates who pursue economic justice not just through GameStop, but also through restructuring the systems that have allowed wealth inequality to form in our society.

And for what it is worth, I just like the stock.