The perils of doubling down

Mark 6:14-29

What in the world was Herod thinking?

Some might say he wasn’t thinking at all… that he was simply in his cups and did something stupid.  And I’m good with the stupid part, but it occurs to me that there might have been a method to his madness.  You see, Herod Antipas (likely the second surviving son of Herod the Great) was on double-secret probation with his Roman handlers, and he knew it.  Things were not going smoothly in the portion of Roman-occupied Palestine that he ruled.  It had become a hotbed of Jewish sedition… a continuing thorn in the side of the provincial governor, Pontius Pilate.  And neither was Antipas beloved of his people.  He was considered barely a Jew at all, a sellout to Greco-Roman culture and mores, and he was hated for it.  Sure, he was a powerful guy, but he was also smart enough to know that the situation would soon become untenable.  His inner circle needed a little stroking.  Loyalties needed refreshing.  So, he had a party.  And the food and the wine were good.  And the dancing was good.  And I wonder if Antipas thought this might be a good time to remind his guests of a story that most of them probably knew pretty well.  The story of a banquet given by Jewish Queen Esther, wife of Ahasuerus (uh-haz-you-WEAR-us), King of Persia, in the waning days of the Babylonian captivity. You see, Nebuchadnezzar and his lot had sacked Jerusalem, knocked down the Temple, scooped up all of the Jews in Judah and carried them off into exile as slaves in Babylon in ~597 BC.  Things rocked on for the folks in exile for a generation or so, until the Babylonians themselves got smacked down by the Persians. There’s always a bigger fish, right? So, the Persians kind of inherited this pre-existing Jewish “slave class” when they rolled into town and, though they weren’t quite as harsh as the Babylonians, there were some Persians who really seemed to have it in for the Jews.  And this is where Esther’s story picks up.  King Ahasuerus had a falling out with his first wife, Vashti, and divorced her.  Kings have been doing that kind of thing ever since there were kings.  There was some competition to see who would become the new queen, and Esther came out on top—but, throughout the entire process, she never revealed to the King that she was a Jew.

Now, there was always a lot of drama going on in Ahasuerus’ court and, at one point, a ladder-climbing wannabe called Haman decided he was going to make a name for himself by instigating the annihilation of all of the Jews in Babylon and the plunder of all their stuff.  So, it looked like the Jews were about to get booted out of the frying pan into the fire.  And things probably would have gone very badly for the home team had it not been for Queen Esther.  Long story short, she invited the King (who was really smitten with her) and Haman to a grand banquet, and then put her own life on the line by revealing her ethnicity, thus compelling Ahasuerus to choose between her… and those who were seeking to destroy her people.  And the King made his choice: “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you . . . Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled” (Est. 7:1-2). Suffice it to say that things didn’t go so well for Haman.  And not only did Esther save her people from destruction in the near term, but it could be argued that she set in motion a series of events that would eventually result in the Jews being freed from captivity to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  It was a pretty famous story.

So maybe, just maybe, that was the image Herod Antipas was trying to evoke at the party that evening—the image of salvation and better days ahead under his leadership.  Or maybe I’m overreaching.  But here’s the thing, even if that’s what he was after, Antipas seems to have forgotten another story from Hebrew tradition.  The story from the book of Judges about a military leader named Jephthah, who vowed that if the LORD would give him victory over the Ammonites, “whoever first came out of his house to meet him, when he returned victorious, would be the LORD’S . . . offered up as a burnt offering” (v. 11:31).  And the Ammonites fell.  So far, so good, right?  But when Jephthah returned home, the first one to come out and greet him, “with timbrels and dancing,” was his only daughter, the apple of his eye.  This was not what Jephthah had in mind.  Never in life would he have made such a promise if he knew how it would end.  But it was what it was, and though it practically killed him, Jephthah felt he had to “double down” and keep the vow he’d made.  I guess he somehow thought he had to save face with the LORD.

“Whatever you ask . . . even half my kingdom.”  Or maybe just the head of John the Baptizer.  Whatever Antipas had intended to accomplish by making such an extravagant offer to his step-daughter, it was no doubt lost in the “shock and awe” that followed her request.  This wasn’t what Antipas had intended.  This was not how things were supposed to work out.  And yet, “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse.”  So, he “doubled down,” kept his promise, and had a good man put to death.

“Doubling down” is a phrase used in blackjack meaning doubling one’s original bid… in exchange for taking only one more card.  So, you significantly increase your risk, with the hope of receiving a significantly greater reward.  The phrase is also used outside of card playing to connote “becoming more tenacious, zealous or resolute in a position or undertaking.”  Doubling down, it’s called.

I wonder, sometimes, if most of us are just a bit too quick to double down on things we’ve said and done in order to appear wise or save face, or even to bolster our confidence in a stand we’ve taken when we’ve got some nagging doubts about whether or not we’re right.  We do it in our families, as parents and spouses.  We do it at work with colleagues, both peers and subordinates (maybe less so with our bosses).  We do it in discussions of civic and church polity.  Lord knows, our political leanings lead us to do and say some of the darnedest things and then double down on them.  Even sometimes in public, when we’re hanging out with friends, we double down on our views about a particular topic by voicing our opinions more loudly, repeating ourselves over and over, calling names, drawing lines in the sand… and for what?  So that maybe we’ll be right for once?  Come out on top?  Win the argument?  But what of the cost?  Is the very real risk of irreparably fragmenting personal relationships (and even broader society) worth the reward of making a point in a dispute that will likely turn out to be viewed as inconsequential in the long run?  And as for “saving face” before God… I wonder if, in most cases, doubling down about worldly stuff accomplishes anything more than concealing and compounding our own sins—things done and left undone—that separate us from the love of God.  You know, that thing Jesus said about “pointing out the speck in a neighbor’s eye, all the while failing to notice the log in your own” (Matt. 7:3-5). Right?  So, I wonder if the only good time to double down is when we do it for love.  Never on account of fear: fear of deprivation—of not having enough—or fear of failure or ridicule, or even fear of losing one’s life.  And never, ever for fear of losing face in God’s eyes.  That’s a large part of the message implicit in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  There’s nothing you could ever do… no place you could ever go… that can separate you from God’s love if you give yourself over completely to trusting in God’s love and forgiveness.  It’s something we must take on faith.  We hear it again and again in Scripture, particularly the gospels and Paul’s letters: we’re called to cease our worldly strivings… to eschew our tendencies to double down on issues that, at best, have little or no impact on our relationship with our Creator and, at worst, impede our progress on the road to Kingdom come.  So, if you’re going to double down on anything, do it for love. Do it only for love.  And you’ll be far less likely to find yourself thinking, “woulda, coulda, shoulda” after you’ve lost something that you can never get back.

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