Abbott & Costello Meet God

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To professional comedians, one of the greatest pieces of comic material ever written is considered more than a skit. Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First” is deemed a masterpiece of timing and partnership. It has an almost musical rhythm, like a favorite song that you never tire of hearing. The words are almost secondary in importance. Almost.

Its premise is that the players on some baseball teams have strange names. Who’s on first, What’s on Second, I don’t Know’s on third. Abbott tries to introduce Costello to these players by name, but Costello’s literal mind gets him lost. In the confusion we find divine poetry. After several go-arounds, Costello parrots what Abbott’s been trying to tell him:

“I get behind the plate to do some fancy catching, Tomorrow’s pitching on my team and a heavy hitter gets up. Now the heavy hitter bunts the ball. When he bunts the ball, me, being a good catcher, I’m gonna throw the guy out at first base. So I pick up the ball and throw it to who?”

Abbott answers, “Now that’s the first thing you’ve said right.”

Costello: “I don’t even know what I’m talking about!”

Now THERE’s a prophetic statement! Prophets in the Bible are often depicted as being channels of God’s sometimes confusing messages, driven by the spirit—often without their willing or knowing participation. Take Jeremiah, in this Sunday’s first reading (Jer 20:7-9). He tells God:

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. … I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in.

Peter knew only too well the embarrassment of getting his Master’s message wrong. Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 16:21-27) has Jesus telling him something completely incomprehensible:

“I must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Peter rebukes him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Then Jesus completes his confusing but beautiful poetry for his disciples to grasp and then to live:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

By the way Peter and all of Christ’s disciples followed their Master’s lead, they proved that one can rise above the imperfections of language and convert the scriptures into a way of life whose beauty will inspire others beyond words.  What the mind will miss in them, the heart will catch.

At the end of “Who’s on First,” Costello explains perfectly what his partner was trying to tell him:

“I throw the ball to who. Whoever it is drops the ball and the guy runs to second. Who picks up the ball and throws it to What. What throws it to I Don’t Know. I Don’t Know throws it back to Tomorrow, Triple play. Another guy gets up and hits a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don’t know! He’s on third and I don’t give a damn!

“What?,” Abbott asks.

Costello repeats, “I don’t give a damn!”

Abbott: “Oh, that’s our shortstop.”

Me: That’s funny, “I don’t give a damn” is the way our Savior wants us to know Him, too. As NOT our source of damnation.

–Tom Andel

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