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Mammon vs. Earth as it is in Heaven

18 Oct

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“[You will] receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” – Mark 10:30

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Just like the story about the rich young ruler, which occurs right before this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus challenges us greatly here.

First and foremost, let us recognize this:

Even as God knew the rich young ruler loved his riches more than God – and reveals this to us for our sakes[i] — those who are rich can indeed enter the Kingdom of God.

With our Lord Jesus Christ, the camel can pass through the eye of the needle.

Flesh and blood – and worldly wealth – cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but the Holy Spirit can give birth to the truly spiritual… that which will live and reign forever.

For what is impossible with man, is possible with God.

In fact, it is by the amazing grace of God that not only are the rich saved but any of us!

And also, it is by the grace of God than any man possesses any wealth whatsoever!

For example, it is ultimately by the grace of God, the unearned goodness of God, that a man is able to, as the author of Proverbs says, be the kind of good person that leaves an inheritance not only for his children, but his children’s children, while we hear that the “sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous…” (Proverbs 13:22).

And, to emphasize this, we also saw in the Ecclesiastes reading this morning that Solomon likewise laments over the “grievous evil”[!] of children not inheriting their parent’s wealth…[ii]

So, the rich can enter heaven… And property, wealth for one and one’s children’s children…

…is good!

With some of that potential confusion out of the way, what else to say?

Well there is indeed more to say, for nothing on earth is more precarious to us than earthly riches!

You might recall the story in Luke chapter 12, where a man in the crowd says to Jesus:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

But Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed Me judge or executor between you?”

And He said to [the crowd],

“Watch out! Guard yourselves against every form of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

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But what does Jesus know?

He hadn’t directly experienced the 20th century “science” of economics after all… [sarcastically]

And the Jews of Jesus’ day also might have been inclined to question this teacher…

After all, they believed that wealth and riches also were a clear sign of blessing from God and favor with Him.  

The focus for them, however, was not really on the grace of God, on how God pours out His gifts among all men in this or that quantity… and how He gives to us the blessings that we have apart from any merit or goodness or power on our part…

Instead, for the Jews, these things showed not only God’s acknowledgement of their eternal salvation, but His acknowledgement of one’s relatively higher goodness, status, and importance on earth…

And, truth be told, how wrong is this really? This is, after all, a pretty common view among people the world over! (and do note Deut. 28:1-14; Job 1:10; 42:10; Ps. 128:1-2; Isa. 3:10, Sir. 11:17; Pro. 10:22).

And we notice this. Because, all of us, after all, want to succeed in the world!

Even if there are bad ways to try this, we have already heard that it is a good thing, for example, to be able to leave your children’s children an inheritance…

And here, generally speaking, we all know something: general morality, character, virtue, and worldly wisdom can help a person to succeed in the world…

Those who don’t seek these things at least pretend they do… to at least some people… for a reason…

Again, don’t relatively wise persons know that when it comes to the human animal, it is not just raw power or brains or wiles but character, part of that being legitimate self-concern, which can create success, thriving, flourishing? [iii]

That said… when we think of these things…. how quickly our minds go to something else!

That money, money, money[!] again!

I mean, money – some kind of liquid currency – sure could help this process, right? [iv]

Well, you have probably heard many a story of the anxieties of those who are rich…

About the miseries of those who have wealth….

About the worries and challenges they face…

Ecclesiastes does indeed raise some good points!

It seems that even if there is a man blessed such that he has both much in the world and is also constantly filled with earthly joy, the temptations that mammon causes – and the spiritual implications of this – are indeed dire.

As the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther put it, “when you have money, you will easily despise the god whom you also have…”

Money hides God from a man… (What Luther Says, 975)

So is it wrong to seek knowledge of these things?

To be aware of the way the world uses money, its relative importance in the world, and to use it?

Not at all.

For a good steward will indeed eagerly learn here.

Proverbs 30 sums up things nicely, speaking of a “sweet spot,” so to speak:

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8,9)

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Good advice.

The world, however, is loath to embrace this advice… this moderation… (perhaps many of us Americans feel that “moderation is a foolish French thing!”).

And so it rushes headlong into the pursuit of greater wealth and riches!

As one put it “Riches grip the heart like few other things…”[v]

The truth is that more often than not, riches produce a real kind of slavery…

And this is not the way things are meant to be.

What should happen is that all of us should be given to hospitality, to generosity, to eagerness to share the love of God with one and all

After all, isn’t that what the Last Day, at the Last Judgment, is supposed to be all about?

What kind of picture do we see before the Judgement seat of God when Christ returns on earth?

Well, regarding the final judgment, Christians will judge the world as Jesus says and Paul echoes.

That said, prior to the final judgment, Christians of course were to judge as God judges: eager to show mercy to all – showing both pity in the form of physical assistance and the forgiveness of God Himself through Christ…

First to the believer and then to many a blessed unbeliever…[vi]

And then we also see in the final judgment how God recognizes this generosity before the eyes of the whole world as all are judged…

And we see that God’s people, like He Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace….

But like the Proverb about neither having too much nor too little… so that God’s law is broken in neither one way nor the other… this kind of thing often seems far from even us Christians…

…this picture… this image… is not one of the foremost things in our minds….

For our minds are, to a large part, not captive to the Word of God but to great many other things.

And of course money… wealth… is one of those main things….

Even though modern economists will teach that we should not think that there is only so much bounty to go around…

…that we should not think that the pie is limited… that the pie of valuable resources cannot in fact grow…[vii]

…maybe even that it is not so much a lamentable thing that we must teach our children “buyer beware…”

…we nevertheless know that the vivid picture Luther provides us with is one we can all identify with and understand, and in fact condemn….

“For the strongest hog at the trough pushes the others away, as though it wanted to devour everything alone. Just so things go on in the world of today. Everybody goes his way in security and not only gives nothing but takes whatever he can possibly get.” (What Luther Says, 3063)

The third century church father Cyprian put it this way:

“They think that they possess, but they are possessed instead. They are the bond-slaves of their money, not the lords of their money. They are slaves of their profit.” (Dictionary… Early Christian Beliefs…, 543)[viii]

Some of our high-flying elites today even believe that their treasures and riches can fend off death itself!

It was only a few years ago that the artificial intelligence scientist Ray Kurzweil was featured in a Time magazine story whose cover proclaimed his Gospel: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”

You see? Man’s wealth, including the psychological capital, the social capital, the cultural capital, and the scientific capital which he can accrue, will conquer death.

Masters of the Universe! 

Why not? After all, when Martin Luther, 500 years ago, wrote that “money is a shameful, odious, impotent god who cannot even help one against an ulcer…” he was clearly wrong, at least in some circumstances, wasn’t he?

Clearly, Dr. Luther did not understand how the modern scientific and technological mindset and the free market could bring such blessings, and even lift all the boats in a rising tide!

Perhaps indeed, in some ways, it can. And hence, it has been easy for us to trust in such things!

And so Solomon’s wise warning in Proverbs – where he also teaches us to ask the Lord to give us only what we need – becomes even more important and relevant for the time in which we live…

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Again, riches are a most, most precarious thing…

The popular 20th century Lutheran theologian and Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski put it this way:

“It is only too true that trust in riches is hard to destroy, hard to change into its opposite, trust in God’s saving grace.”

So again, riches are not salvation or synonymous with the same, but one of the greatest barriers of salvation…

As Jesus put it succinctly,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24)

With a focus on gaining the material things of life for ourselves, with a fear, love, and trust in things that are not our God…. we think don’t think of eternity and become ineffective vessels for our God.

If we are not growing spiritually, we are diminishing…

There is no neutral ground.

And if we are ourselves not among those who are completely spiritually dead, the old Adam who remains in all Christians nevertheless keeps fighting back, determined to make us spiritually poor under the guise of being “rich”….

If we say a man is rich, should that be put in scare quotes if he is rich with the world’s wealth – or God’s wealth, rich in the things of God?

If we must choose, surely the former! “Rich”, in quotes, when describing the world’s wealth… Mammon.

So fight on beloved brethren!

Guilty though each and every one of us might be of the sin of covetousness and greed, Christ has died for us, Christ forgives us even now through His blood on the cross, and gives us new life, a life that is truly life!

So say again with the Psalmist as we did earlier:

“I rejoice in following your statutes
    as one rejoices in great riches[!]”

And do not serve your riches, but put your riches and yourselves in service of Christ and the Gospel (Wicke, 145)!

Otherwise, heed the warning from the ancient Christian text, the Shepherd of Hermas:

“Those who are rich in this world cannot be useful to the Lord unless their riches are cut down…” (Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 541)

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When it comes to money, brothers and sisters, be flexible and fluid.

Our world today, however, wants to be flexible and fluid in a different way, doesn’t it?

This goes well beyond a colleague at work assuring us they are flexible…  

Now everything in our world screams for us to get Woke!

“Diversity,” in all things but thought it seems, is the name of the game.

And so let all the walls and borders come down!

Let all the distinctions disappear!

In our nation, “E Pluribus Unum,” out of the many one, takes on new meaning as the ocean is embraced.

“We need to be fluid,” we are told!

Embrace fluidity!:

Government and business merging!

Gender fluidity,

sexual fluidity,

national fluidity,

and religious fluidity…

Not to mention the fluidity of this or that definition which we’ll change on you without making sure you are notified…

On the contrary, the Lord wants some honesty here… and stability with all those things!

The Lord wants us to embrace His created order!

In the ancient world, the sea was feared because sailors knew it was chaotic and frightening. There was no stability there… little sense of any permanence. Men and women knew this in their bones. This is why a great Gospel hymn like “Rock of Ages, Cleft for me…” became so popular only around 150 years ago….

So, what in the world is the appeal of this Brave New World?

Well, perhaps something is even more frightening than the sea….

The fear of rejection, perhaps?

And so here, I submit, in spite of the horrifyingly wrong beliefs, we see the desire for acceptance… for salvation… and the passion to earn it.

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But this must fail. For all people must flee the temptation that salvation can be earned by us.

There is no fortune… or family for that matter…. that we can leave to earn God’s salvation.

On the contrary, if anyone could ever “earn salvation” that person must be the Lord Jesus Christ!

He is the One who had no place to lay His head (Luke 9:58) and who left His family (3:21, 31-34; Jn. 7:3-5) – including suffering “the ultimate loss of relationship as He was forsaken by His Father while on the cross” for our sin (Mk 15:34)” (Paavola, 187)!

“Flesh gives birth to flesh…” (John 3) flesh inherits flesh…

Only the Truly Spiritual One can bring life (I Cor. 15:45)….

On earth bonds of blood might be strong bonds of belonging, but the bonds of belonging created in Christ’s people will last into eternity…

Nevertheless bonds of blood are important for us all, they are a foundation of sorts….

And this makes sense, for insofar as it concerns us on earth, the Apostle Paul tells us that “[t]he spiritual [does] not [come] first, but the natural [first], and then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).

Jesus says one of the benefits or rewards of being a Christian is gaining a new family, a family that is superior to, but not wholly unlike the natural family we have known…

Again, He means for this realization, this connection, to be normal for us, natural for us – that is, to understand that the fellowship of family is our greatest natural need on earth – and also that we understand the things that naturally make this the case:

-the sexual relations meant to occur within marriage,

-the children that are born within…

-the mothers and fathers produced as that happens…

-the identities of male and female recognized in the process…

All these things which are being continually undermined now!

NO!

NO!

People need this family. People need this identity. People need this belonging. People need this specific kind of group. Real Family.

It is has always been this way, but now the lack that many know is glaring, and as the Christian sociologist Mary Eberstadt says, there are “primal screams”…

Screams of pain because of the loss. People need family, are desperate for belonging, and Jesus Christ can give it to them, on earth as in heaven.

With the basic understandings of God’s created order being fought against… taught against… will it be easier or harder for the world to understand the Gospel now?

I am concerned that with the natural not coming first in the minds of many – but a false gnostic spirituality instead that eschews the natural – the latter is the likely answer….

Nevertheless, we can offer and give hope to these hurting men and women through the church, providing the riches that they really need, the gifts of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in Heaven….

As Mark Strauss puts it, giving us some insight into Jesus’ words about the new family we know in Him, “any Christian who has experienced the fellowship and hospitality of fellow believers in some remote corner of the world” can begin to understand what Jesus is saying here about the relatives and blessings we gain in following Him (445).

And so let us pray that the lost souls of today will be among the last who will be first!

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Yes, we should note… Jesus does indeed end by saying:

“The first will be last and the last will be first.”

Remember, Judas wanted His money.

Remember, the Pharisees wanted the praise of men….

Remember, Caiaphas wanted his position…

Remember also the Apostle’s piercing words “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs….”[ix]

Be different brothers and sisters!

And be on guard about trying to earn salvation by your deeds, accomplishments, or material gains – in this life and the next!

And especially do not throw in your lot with the World Spirit with its demonic and chaotic ways, but steward your blessings to go against the flow, and enable the throwing out of the life preservers….

Yes, it is true that Jesus confronted the rich young ruler with the demand to leave everything and give it to the poor to reveal to him that no, he had not kept God’s 10 commandments perfectly…

Yes, it is true that we are not all given that command to give up everything Jesus demanded of this man.

At the same time, in Luke 6, His Sermon on the Plain Jesus does encourage all persons more generally:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys….”

Again, when it comes to both our wealth and the grace of God, He desires fluidity.

Understand your “liquid assets’ in just this way!

Oh, that our generosity and giving would flow like a river from us!

That we would hold to nothing so tightly, but that all the goodness that we have and have known would flow from us to the resounding benefit of our brothers and sisters, and all people on earth!

This is the way that things were meant to be from the beginning!

Where the voice of our Master – and He alone! – instills in us the confidence to leave everything!

And where the goodness and love of God, freely given to us as He freely gives us all things, was something that we would all know and be sure of….

To be firm in.

Again, that we would… secure in His care… secure in His good order… thankfully and gladly let that love and care flow through us to all those around us….

The surety of God’s love among us begetting the surety of God’s love to ever greater degrees… both in its scope and in the depths to which it is experienced.

Such a love freely gives…

And such a love freely receives from God’s bountiful and continual goodness, a goodness which is always pleased above all to provide for and delight in its own…

And so we see in our text for today that Jesus tells us that we really do gain more than we lose here.

We see that along with the promise of the wonderful blessing of Christian family fellowship in this world and the next, Jesus also, strangely, talks about how by giving up and following Him we will also gain something else in return: persecution.

This seems very hard and even crazy to us, but it does us well to remember here our Lord’s solid promises:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Why might persecutions be a blessing?[x]

Again, the commentator Lenski helps us here: “[P]ersecutions are [in fact] the butter on the bread, for by them we are more strongly assured that we are God’s children than by the other blessings that he sends us.” (448)

A study Bible I looked at also talks about how “paradoxically, fellowship with other believers develops most deeply in persecution…” (NIV Study Bible)

So, there is an intensification of our life in Christ…

More knowledge of our sin.

More knowledge of God’s grace.

More knowledge of His purposes in this world and the blessings to come…

Pray then, that you might be more fully rooted in, found in, at one with, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ….

That His Holy Spirit would so possess us…

…that we would be prepared for these trials and the further refinement that awaits us in them…

And finally, the life to come that has been prepared for us….

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Christ has died!

Christ has risen!

Christ will come again!

So be willing to be poor, humble, simple, despised.

And let God’s Holy Spirit, and not worldly wealth, possess you.

Amen


Images: Mammon and His Slave, a c. 1896 engraving by Sascha Schneider ; https://www.operationwerewolf.com/war-journal/2017/01/03/the-root-of-all-evil/

[i] We remember our Hebrews reading for today: “12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” See also Romans 3:20-21.

[ii] I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:

wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
      or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
    there is nothing left for them to inherit.
   Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
    and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
    that they can carry in their hands. (Ecclesiastes 5:13-15)

[iii] Said to an online friend who finds much to commend in Ayn Rand and says she is often very misunderstood: “I’m saying every relatively wise person knows that when it comes to the human animal it is not just raw power or brains or wiles but character — “the virtue of selfishness”? — which can create success, thriving, flourishing…. “

[iv] [Even though we know character is often key to worldly success] even in fallen man’s most noble moments we are tempted to go to money here… We feel that having a decent amount of money (or some other highly valued and liquid material good like gold or whatever) can certainly serve to enhance, exacerbate, turbo-charge this process…

Frankly, I think this is so pervasive, I’m often not even sure why such thoughts are necessarily bad! (can’t God use our money for good and noble reasons, after all? even as the Apostle Paul speaks of being content with food and covering, don’t we all also need some forms of liquid assets to basically live in the world?)

More thoughts, mostly excised from the final sermon (the bracketed ones…), but which I spent a lot of time on:

Now it is true that no one is debating that general morality, character, virtue, and worldly wisdom can’t help a person to succeed in the world as well… not even most atheists will say that this kind of general morality and worldly wisdom can’t really help a person succeed in the world….[iv]

That said… when we think of success…. how quickly our minds go to something else!

That money, money, money[!] again!

I mean, money – some kind of liquid currency – sure can help, right?

[After all, if you come into money – and you are not like the idiot who wins the lottery and blows his winnings on whatever he feels like – you can also start to produce what we call “wealth” as well!

You can purchase possessions and you can gain other perks and powers (like education, investments, connections, increased social mobility…)….

If you have these things, your status will increase (perhaps particularly with this or that group you are interested in being with…)

And if you have status, you have a sense of where you stand in the pecking order, and the influence that affords you…

And… if you know where you stand in the pecking order and can effectively wield that position for influence…. Then you will have the appreciation and admiration and even attraction of others in your immediate circles… and maybe beyond (and you’ll even catch the eye of that really special someone!)

And… if you have the admiration and attraction of those certain others – who might even become our close partners in our success! – all of life’s common pleasures and comforts sought by men and women of every age, and not just the short term ones but the long-term ones as well….  are within your grasp….

You can retire, disengage from society, and relax!

Or you can choose to further engage society and seek to exercise some control over its direction!

Earthly comfort! Earthly rest! Or, for the more ambitious, some real earthly glory and honor!

Don’t call all of this the vice of covetousness or greed… call it good and right and proper ambition!

What harm is there in all this? Yes, we’ve heard about what people say they regret on their death beds. Certainly we want real love and friendship in our lives too – and not just some earthly “trophies” – but why not also all of this as well?…]

[v] Quote from the [Eastern] Orthodox Study Bible.

[vi] Bracketed excerpts excised from sermon: “[For when comes the separating of the sheep and the goats, we will see Christ and His Church showing mercy to those who have been merciful! In other words, to those who have shown themselves to be His children (after all, sons of God act like sons of God and it is right that they should be found with their father and brother).

This means those who have forgiven much – echoing the forgiveness, or reconciliation of God Himself – will be forgiven.

This means that those who opened up the Kingdom of Heaven to others will have the Kingdom of Heaven opened up to them.

Like Christ, they eagerly gave the promise of paradise to those enemies of God dying to the left of them (and to the right, if they would only have it) who had nothing to give, and could pay nothing back.]

God’s people, like God Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace….”

[vii] Aren’t we now in danger of having a war with China over Taiwan and their valuable microchip industry? Microchips are a resource created and made valuable by man.

[viii] Another man from around that same time talked about the Christians of his day, and put matters in this way:

“But that many of us are called poor, this is not our disgrace, but our glory; for as our mind is relaxed by luxury, so it is strengthened by frugality.  And yet who can be poor if he does not want, if he does not crave for the possessions of others, if he is rich towards God?  He rather is poor, who, although he has much, desires more.” (DECB, 440)

The second century church father Clement of Alexandria said this: “Delicacies spent on pleasures become a dangerous shipwreck to men….”  (Dictionary… Early Christian Beliefs…., 541)

[ix] More context:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs….”

Just a short while later on, Paul commands his young charge Timothy this way:

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life…”

Regarding “[a] firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life…”

This does not mean that Christ is not our sure foundation but that our deeds are. When a perhaps self-congratulatory Peter says “but we have left everything to follow you…” maybe he was a bit confused….

He was not recalling they did not choose Jesus but that He had chosen them, that they might receive the grace of eternal salvation and even Apostleship. It was such grace and the resultant thankfulness that had prompted their willingness to leave their own livelihoods (though we note Peter kept his house! : ) )…

This, I believe is why Jesus does not firmly rebuke Peter here as well. Peter has heard Jesus say that a man cannot give anything in exchange for his own soul (Mark 8:37). Peter and the other disciples have real faith in Jesus, but it is weak….

They are simply being inconsistent and need to continually be taught… by the One who is able to empathize with our weaknesses… [See the end of our Hebrews reading: “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[f] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need….”]

[x] See also I Peter 4:13-14.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

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