Archive for September, 2011

“No Bargain At All”

Matthew 20:1-16

Daniel J. Ott

We’re all looking for a bargain, aren’t we?  My father-in-law and I are big internet shoppers.  We often compare notes when we get together.  “I found a universal remote for twenty bucks that lists for $89.99.”  “I got some new speakers for my computer – 70% off.”  We’re all looking to pay less and get more, right?

Maybe we’re even looking for a bargain when it comes to work.  Sure we say that all we want is a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but working a little less and earning a little more wouldn’t hurt.  You have to haggle a little when you take a new job.  You have to ask for a raise now and again.

The first group of workers in our story knows this.  They may be a little down on their luck.  They’re trying to scrape things together as day laborers, but they’re far from stupid.  The landowner comes around and they know that they should agree on a price ahead of time.  They’re about to work a twelve hour day and they want to make sure that they get what’s coming to them… or maybe a little more.  So they bargain a little, but I guess the landowner was better at the bargaining game, because they settle for the usual day’s wage.  Can’t blame them for trying, though.  Give less – get more.  That’s our motto.

I have the impression that some people live by that motto even when it comes to religion.  Their religion starts with one simple prayer that earns them a spot in heaven.  They like churches where not much is required:  Just go hear the band, a sermon that’s easy to understand, and slip out the back.  They like to hear the preacher talk about forgiveness and grace, not so much holiness or service.  Religion for them is a private matter, a personal affair.  Just a little talk with Jesus now and again and everything will be alright.  Give less – get more.  Who can blame them?  We’re all looking for a bargain.

But if we can’t get a bargain, then I guess we’ll settle for what’s fair.  That’s what the next sets of workers do.  The landowner keeps going back to the marketplace every three hours to get more workers.  I guess the harvest was plentiful that year.  And unemployment must have been up, too, for all those workers to be standing around.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t bargain.  The landowner simply tells them that he will pay them what’s fair and they go quietly to get to work.

That’s a good Midwest mindset, right?  We like a person who just keeps her head down and does her job.  We all just kind of expect that if you work hard, things will work out in the end.  Just do your job and take care of your business and everything will be alright.

And this mindset can bleed over into religion too.  He says, “I’ll be alright.  I never drank much or gambled.  I’ve always put food on the table for my family.  I went to church when I could.  I’m sure the Lord will be alright with me.”  She says, “I’ve always tried to be nice to people.  I’ve helped out when I could.  I took care of Mom when she got old.  Surely, God will see that I’m basically a good person.”  It’s just what’s fair, right?  We live a pretty good life and God should give us what’s coming to us in the end.  There’s no reason to bargain or haggle.  Just give us what’s fair, God.

Well, amazingly, the landowner goes back to the marketplace one last time, just an hour before quitting time.  And wouldn’t you know it, there are still some poor schlepps standing around.  He asks, “Why are you standing here all day.”  They state the painfully obvious, “Because no one hired us.”  And he sends them out to work in the field.  These must really be some desperate folk.  Maybe they figured the landowner might at least feed them supper for doing a little clean-up work.  I guess when you can’t get what’s fair, you’ll take what you can get.  Maybe they’ll at least get a scrap or two.  An hour’s work is better than nothing.

During my time teaching at St. Andrews in North Carolina the make-up of my classes became pretty predictable.  I would always have pretty similar sets of students.  I would have the religious studies majors and the students planning to go to seminary.  I would have a handful of zealots, who were often new to their faith and wanted to learn more about religion.  Of course, there were always some who just needed to fill in a space in their schedule and thought that a religion course might be interesting or easy, or both.  But for a couple of years I had another group that were following me around that left everybody wondering, including me.  I called them my motley crew.

They weren’t bad students, but not the cream of the crop either.  It was well known that several in the group probably smoked a little too much weed.  None of them had any interest in majoring or minoring in religion.  They were far from churchy or even religious, really.  At first, I thought it was just that they enjoyed a little banter about God and my conversational teaching style.  Then I began to learn their stories.  One of the young women had lost her brother at a very young age.  Another was in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a family that wasn’t very accepting of her sexuality.  One of the young men had a very difficult relationship with his father.  They all had big questions and lots of them.

Thinking about them through the lens of this parable, I think they were just looking for a few scraps.  The church was offering way too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  They weren’t looking for any churchy bargain.  Some of them also probably thought that they weren’t worthy of a fair deal.  So they took a few religion courses.   Slowly they started asking their questions and wrestling with them.  They spent their hour in the field and were happy to do so.

Back in our story, when the last hour was up, the pay was doled out.  They lined up last to first: the one-hour laborers in front looking for scraps, next were the the three, the six and the nine, looking for a fair shake, and last the twelve-hour laborers ready to get what they bargained for.  Everybody looked on as the drama unfolded.  The one-hour laborers were given a full day’s wage!  Can you imagine the surge of energy in the room?  The motley crew must have been bowled over.  I’m sure they sheepishly collected their pay and disappeared as fast as possible, before anyone had any opportunity to change their mind.  The other workers must have been a buzz too.  “If these schlepps got a full day’s wage, what’s in store for us?”

Well, we soon find out.  The three-hour laborers come forward and receive a full day’s wage, too.  The six-hour laborers – a full day’s wage and the three-hours received the same.  We’re not told what, if anything, these laborers had to say, but I’m sure they went away murmuring something.  You certainly cannot call this ‘fair.’  But which way does ‘fair’ cut here?  That those who worked nine hours received the same as those who worked three is certainly an injustice.  But can you complain if you receive twelve hour’s pay for nine hours work?  Isn’t that a bargain?  Those promised fairness were left to wonder just what fair is.

Finally, the first laborers come forward and they probably could imagine where this was headed.   True to form they received what they bargained for – one full day’s wage for one full day’s work.  But they were indignant.  “This, decidedly, is not fair!  These last schlepps worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  They’d forgotten about what they bargained for and now they were all about what’s fair.  And we can’t blame them, can we?  Obviously this is bad business.  You can’t pay people the same who don’t work the same.

And it’s bad religion, too.  Does this imply that the old drunk who makes a confession in the eleventh hour will be rewarded just the same as us?  Does that mean what we do in this life doesn’t matter?  Maybe we should live it up.  Why labor in the field and make sacrifices and work so damned hard at being faithful and living a decent life if this is how it comes down in the end?  Wouldn’t we be ticked, too, if this is how it worked?

Well, what comes next in the story is probably the most startling part.  The landowner fights back.  “I’ve done you no wrong.  I gave you what you bargained for.  Take what belongs to you and go.”  In effect, the landowner says, “If you don’t like it, get out.”

Now throughout the sermon we’ve been making the analogy explicit in its application to religion, so it wouldn’t be fair to stop short here.  Imagine it:  We get ticked and start wagging our fingers at God about the fairness of this whole exchange.  “This is no bargain, God, no bargain at all.  We labor all day and the one who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same reward.  It’s just not fair.”  And God responds simply, “If you don’t like it get out.  I do what I want with what’s mine.  Go on.  Get out!”

I thought about ending the sermon there.  That’s where the parable ends.  But I’m convinced that it’s not where the message ends.  You see, it really is no bargain at all.  In the end all of this talk of transactions and fair wages falls on its head when what we’re trying to talk about is grace.  Grace is no bargain at all.  There’s no hiring and haggling, no bartering and bargaining.  Grace is a gift, it’s not a wage.  Grace isn’t measured in more or less or when or under what conditions.  Grace is immeasurable.  Whether we’re looking for a bargain, or a fair shake, or just a few scraps, when grace comes we get much more than we bargained for.  Grace is the air we breathe and the life we live.  It’s the love we share and the forgiveness we’ve been given.  Grace is a precious, precious gift – no bargain at all.

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“On Forgiveness”

Matthew 18:21-35

Daniel J. Ott


We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  If you’re like me, I’m sure you can think of many times when you have forgiven.  I think of myself as basically a forgiving person.  But I also can think of things that I have not forgiven.  There are some wrongs that have been done to me that I just can’t let go.  Some of these wrongs just seem too great to be forgiven; or they caused too deep a wound in me; or the person who did the wrong never did try to right the wrong, leaving me feeling as though the person was not worthy of my forgiveness.  Sure we all know that we should forgive.  But isn’t there some limit?  Do we have to forgive always?  Do we have to forgive everything?

Matthew’s parable wrestles with these questions.  And Matthew himself may get a little tangled in the answers.  And so may we.

Let’s start with the servant.[1]  In my study Bible the heading to this story calls him the “unforgiving servant.”  But is he really so bad?  A co-worker was having some trouble.  He loaned him a few hundred dollars.  So far so good, right?  Time goes by and the co-worker never pays him back.  Finally, he happens upon the guy and says, “Hey, what’s doin’?  Where’s that money I leant you?”  The co-worker says he can’t pay and asks for a break.  The servant has had enough, though, and decides to take the matter up in the courts.

Now I guess we could call this “unforgiving.”  But would any of us act so differently?  We all need to be responsible for our debts, right?  Our whole banking system, our whole economic system is based on this basic assumption.  We take loans and we pay them back.  If we don’t pay them back, there are legal ramifications.  What would happen if banks and mortgage companies just started forgiving debts left and right?  Are they “unforgiving” when they insist on repayment?

Of course, the reason that this servant seems so unforgiving is because of the contrast set up by the parable.  Just before the servant demands payment from his co-worker, he himself has been forgiven a great debt.

The story goes that the boss was reconciling his books.  He comes across our servant and sees that he owes ten thousand talents.  Now when I first read the story I thought to myself, “Oh, ten thousand talents, sounds like a goodly sum.”  But Matthew’s audience would have gasped at hearing that number.  A talent is worth fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  Ten thousand talents is like a billion dollars.  How’s a regular schmoe going to pay back a billion dollars?  How in the world did he end up a billion dollars in debt?  What’s wrong with this guy?  So the boss comes to a fairly logical conclusion for the day.  Sell everything he’s got, including his family and him and get what you can.  What else can you do with such a deadbeat?

So the servant makes a scene and falls on his knees blathering and begging, saying, “Just give me a little more time.”  “Really?,” the boss thinks to himself, “Just a little more time and you’ll pay me back a billion dollars, eh?”  The boss has a flash of pity and decides to let the poor schlepp go.  He wipes the books clean and sends him on his way.

And this is the reason why we get so indignant about the servant’s unforgiving attitude toward his co-worker.  How can you receive forgiveness of such a huge debt and turn right around and harshly demand payment on a much smaller debt?  The servant had been forgiven an immeasurable debt, but did not learn forgiveness from this experience.

This is the ‘gotcha moment,’ of course.  The finger that wags and points at the servant turns right around at us.  How can we who have been forgiven of so much not forgive others?  God forgives us all of our sin.  God forgives the wrongs that we have done to God and the wrongs that we have done to each other.  God demands no payment at all for these sins.  When our account comes due, God simply wipes the books clean and sends us on our way.  And when we fail to forgive each other, we are that unforgiving servant who has been forgiven so much, but cannot see fit to forgive a little.

The force with which Matthew drives home this point is startling.  The boss hands the servant over to be tortured and Matthew puts these words on Jesus’ lips, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your sister or brother from your heart.”  Well, that’s not very forgiving is it?  The message can’t really be that if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive.  This forgiveness business is tricky.  It’s hard to get our minds around the great mercy of God.  But I believe the message that Matthew was shooting for, even if he didn’t quite hit the mark, remains:  God’s forgiveness is limitless and so should ours be.

Two stories (ripped from the headlines as it were):

On October 2, 2006, a man named Charles Carl Roberts entered the one room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, County, PA.  At about 10:36 that morning the first call was made to 911 explaining that the gunman had let several adults, boys and small children go, but was holding hostage around ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13.  The police responded within minutes.  But soon after they arrived at around 11:07 shooting began in the school house.  By 11:11 the police on the scene alerted dispatch that there were 10-12 victims with head wounds.  Roberts had shot ten little girls before killing himself.  Five of the girls died in the end.  The five that survived live with various persistent injuries.

The world watched as a little Amish village in Pennsylvania dealt with their pain and grief.  We were all amazed by the scenes of forgiveness that followed.  Reports emerged that on the very same day of the shooting the grandfather of one of the murdered girls was overheard telling his family, “We must not think evil of this man.”  The family of the shooter reported that members of the Amish community reached out in consolation to them for their loss within hours of the massacre.  Amish community members attended Charles Roberts’ funeral and even established a charitable fund for the family that he left behind.  In an open letter to the Amish community thanking them for their forgiveness and grace, Marie Roberts wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”[2]

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes.  At 8:46 in the morning five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  At 9:03 a.m. another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.  At. 9:37 a third plane crashed into the Pentagon.  United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 after passengers struggled with that plane’s hijackers.  In the end almost three thousand people were dead including the hijackers.

The world watched as a great nation dealt with its pain and grief.  The question of forgiveness in the wake of this heinous attack is a difficult one, but what is sure is that the scenes that followed hardly resembled the scenes from that little Amish village.  Three days after the event, our then president stood in the midst of the rubble in New York City and vowed revenge.  The so-called “war on terror” was launched immediately.  American troops were in Afghanistan before thirty days had expired.  Not two years later, Iraq was identified as the central front in the war on terror and military initiatives were expanded.  Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan rages on and troops remain in Iraq.  On May 2 of this year, the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops.  Our current president told those of us who wondered whether this assassination was necessary that we should have our heads examined.

Our grief and anger have also led to ill-effects at home.  A nation that once prided itself on its immigrant roots has grown intolerant and insular.  Muslim Americans have become the targets of hate crimes and deep suspicion.  Ignorant Christians have hosted burnings of Islam’s holy book.  Congress has even held hearings casting a wide net and suggesting that all of Islam is threatened by radicalization.  Muslim Americans, who lost their own on 9/11, have had their patriotism put into question and been forced to become apologists for their faith.

We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  When asked to put a number on it, Jesus said, “seventy times seven.”  In other words, as much as it takes.  God’s forgiveness is limitless.  What about ours?

[1] Throughout this treatment of the parable, I am following David Buttrick rather closely.  David Buttrick, Speaking Parables:  A Homiletic Guide, (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 107-113.

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The Law of Love

“The Law of Love”

Romans 13:8-10

Daniel J. Ott

As a pastor and a religion professor, I’m often asked some interesting questions.  Students, parishioners, neighbors, hairdressers seem to save up their questions and pop them on me when they get me alone.  And I don’t mind, but I’m sometimes surprised at the nature of the questions.  They are not usually about what God is like, or, “What is a Trinity?,” or “How should I pray?”  They’re almost always about ethical or moral issues.  “Let me tell you what my cousin did.  Do you think that’s right or wrong?”  “What do you think about premarital sex – or abortion – or divorce?”  These are not easy questions and I think I almost always leave the person asking the question a bit disappointed.  You see, I don’t give the most straightforward answers in the world.  And it’s not just that I don’t want to get on the wrong side of my hairdresser’s debate with her cousin as she cuts my bangs, it’s also because I don’t think morality is as black and white as we would like for it to be.  We’d all like to have a little rulebook where we could look up our particular moral dilemma in the index, turn to the applicable page and read the answer.  Problem solved.  Or even better, just corner the local expert.  See what he has to say.  But it’s just not that simple or easy.

When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus famously responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest commandment.  And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.”  Paul likewise says succinctly, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Love is the fulfillment of the law.”  Jesus and Paul both rejected legalistic approaches to morality and emphasized that love alone has the power to put us into right relationships with one another and with God.  No set of rituals, no legal code however sound, no abstract ideals or moral postulates can ultimately put us in right relationship with God and neighbor.  The only thing that can set us on the right moral path is real, concrete love.

And that complicates matters.  That might sound funny to say, but grounding our morality in love complicates matters.  For one thing, love is boundless.  If we could consult a rulebook, we could just do what it says and be done.  But love demands that we go further.  Love shatters the law and asks not, “What am I required to do?,” but “What should I do?,” “What is the best I can do.”  Love demands that we go not only the mile required but a second mile, that we give not only our coats, but our cloaks as well.

Another reason why love complicates matters is that love is risky.  If we could ascertain the highest ideals or perfect our legal code, then we’d know when something was right and when something was wrong.  We could rest assured that if everyone would just abide by our guidelines, then the world would be all right.  But love gives no guarantees.  The famous psychologist, Erich Fromm said, “Love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.  Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”

The third reason that love complicates matters is that love takes effort.  If love is to be the ground of morality, then it will demand that we press past moral deliberation or discernment toward the hard work of actually acting lovingly.  We can’t just think about it, we have to do it.  Love is work, hard work.  Love demands sacrifice and compromise.  Love demands that we listen to others and strain to understand them.  Love demands that we give of ourselves for the good of another even if the other may give no good in return.

But even though love complicates matters, even though love is complex and risky and difficult, Jesus and Paul boldly assert that morality should be rooted in love, that love is the greatest commandment and the fulfillment of the law.

Well, I was taught well that when talking about moral matters we shouldn’t stay too long in the abstract.  We should tackle some cases.  And lucky for us, Paul mentions a few.  Paul writes, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love.”  Now at first blush this might seem a fairly random selection of commandments.  They’re not the first few or the last few as they’re listed in Exodus or Deuteronomy.  So it got me wondering about why Paul mentions these commandments.  Then it hit me:  Sex, Violence, and Materialism.  If that list doesn’t get at the heart of morality, then I don’t know what list would.  Let’s look at each.  I’m going to take them out of order.

First, materialism and covetousness:  I’ve been working with students this week, reading the Bhagavad Gita, a holy book in the Hindu tradition.  Hinduism teaches us that many people are on the path of desire.  Many people spend their lives seeking pleasure or success or some combination of the two.  But the Gita teaches that we should seek to transcend our attachment to things and to worldly accomplishments, because these things are only temporary and pursuing them can lead to suffering.  There’s a great passage:   “If a [person] keeps dwelling on sense objects, attachment to them arises; from attachment, desire flares up; from desire, anger is born; from anger, confusion follows; from confusion, weakness of memory;  weak memory – weak understanding; weak understanding – ruin.”[1]

I told my students that we could think about this in terms of a promotion at work.  I start thinking about the promotion.  I get attached to the idea of a promotion.  I start dreaming about it and planning on it.  It becomes the object of my desire.  I want that promotion.  I deserve the promotion.  I think the promotion is rightfully mine.  Then the numbskull in the cubicle next to mine gets the promotion.  Now I’m angry.  How could my idiot boss give numbskull the promotion?  How could numbskull get MY promotion?  Now I’m confused.  I start rehearsing what it is that I did or didn’t do.  I obsess over little things that were said and I even start to create my own story about what went wrong.  Soon the story takes on a life of its own.  My memory is tainted.  Now I know why numbskull got the promotion – He’s always been a kiss-up.  And my idiot boss never has appreciated me like she should.  Going to work becomes hell.  Every interaction with numbskull and my idiot boss drives me up a wall.  I can’t understand why they do the things they do.  They seem to have it out for me.  I’m ruined.  Soon my boss will have no choice but to let me go.

What law code could free us from this sort of moral failure?  We can say simply, “Thou shalt not covet,” but we see how things easily spin out of control, how we are trapped by our desires.  The law of love might free us, though.  And here the love does not even need to be for the other.  I could free myself from this vicious cycle by first loving myself.  If I love myself more than that promotion; if I love myself more than the things I possess or the things that I accomplish, then I will not be so attached to those things and I will not be tempted to travel the road of desire toward ruin.  Further, if I love myself more than that promotion, then the possibility of loving numbskull is opened up.  I can love numbskull, even if he has something that I thought I wanted, because I realize that both numbskull and I are much more valuable than things.  The law of love can free us from covetousness and materialism.

Test case #2, adultery:  Talking about the law of love is helpful in two ways.  First, as we’ve noted we realize that love is the fulfillment of the law.  Love sums up the law.  But it’s also helpful to note that love is a kind of law itself.  Love takes moral effort and requires responsibility.

Our culture can lure us into mistaking love for an emotion or mere sentiment.  Or maybe it’s even worse than that.  Sometimes we begin to think of love as a sort of primal drive or even a kind of magic.  We imagine that we fall in and out of love.  We forget that we are responsible agents when it comes to love.  A woman looks at her husband and thinks with wonder, “I just don’t love him anymore.”  And she thinks that this has just happened to her, that she has no responsibility in the breakdown of love in their marriage.  A man has sex with a woman who is not his wife and he thinks to himself, “I can’t help it.  I fell in love with her.”  Do you see what has happened here?  The word love becomes a tool to abort the law, rather than being the power that enables us to fulfill the law.  If we fall in and out of love, if love is some magic that happens to us, rather than an action for which we are responsible, then infidelity and unhappy and failed marriages follow quite readily.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed, “Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure was more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work…”[2]   Love is work.  It takes effort.  It requires moral strength.  But love is blissful and has the power to heal our relationships and make us whole.  The law of love can free us from adultery.

Our final test case is murder.  There’s a fascinating documentary that I watched some time ago now, called “Flight from Death.”  I recommend it.  It’s based on the work of psychologist Ernest Becker and some contemporary psychologists who have furthered his line of research.  The basic premise is that our fear of death is one of the biggest psychological drivers in our lives. What we do is construct coping mechanisms that allow us to deny the reality of death or otherwise flee from death.  We become the heroes and heroines of our own stories.  We try to make ourselves immortal by building a financial empire, or creating the perfect work of art, or even rearing the perfect family.  Or another way to cope would be to connect ourselves to ideas and structures that help us to think that we are bigger than we are.  Our religions or our national identities become extensions of our selves that secure our immortality.

The problem is that when these false selves or extended selves are threatened, then we perceive the threat as a threat to our very lives.  This is when anger, violence and even murder arise.    When a liberal hears conservative rhetoric, she becomes inordinately angry…Why? – Because she takes it not merely as a threat to her ideas, but a threat on her life. When Western Christians come into contact with Arab Muslims, the clash of ideas causes the two to feel threatened to the core.  Anger, violence and even killing result.

Love, again, is the only way forward.  Jesus asked us to love even our enemies.  He asked us to love even when we feel threatened.  He gave us the example as he loved even from the cross.

Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” – the neighbor next door with whom you disagree; the neighbor who lives down the street, but comes from another country; the neighbor across the aisle who sees the world differently than you; and the neighbor across the globe who has a different way of life, a different culture and a different religion.  The law of love can free us from violence and killing.

Sisters and brothers, owe no one anything, except to love one another for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  All the commandments are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The law is love and love is the law.

[1] Stephen Mitchell, trans. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 2000), p. 58.

[2] As quoted by Bell Hooks in All About Love: New Visions, (New York:  Perennial, 2000), p. 183.

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