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What Is The Bible About
Politics? Economics? What? What? What?
Copyright © 2015 Dorian Scott Cole
Nope. Got lazy.
Different views in different pews
What is the Bible about? Everyone has a different view. Some want to emphasize the "social Gospel," which is ministry to the poor, needy, and powerless. Others want to emphasize the "individual Gospel" of the personal God who is at their call for their benefit. Some want to emphasize the ministry of sharing with the many, even "socialism." Others want to emphasize more capitalistic ideas, and freedom, and even mix the two ideas into capitalism with free markets. Are any of these ideas implicitly or explicitly found in the Bible? Yes and No. So I will explain it all, from the Book of Matthew, and you can judge for yourself.
Essentially the Bible, in context, is a a book of "Good News" (Gospel). That is the message. What that Good News is, was defined by Wycliffe as "The central truth of the gospel is that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of His son to the world. He suffered as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death, and now offers a share in His triumph to all who will accept it. The gospel is good news because it is a gift of God, not something that must be earned by penance or by self-improvement (Jn 3:16; Rom 5:8–11; II Cor 5:14–19; Tit 2:11–14)."
The Wycliffe synopsis is the main reason. Guilt is horribly destructive, brings progress to a stop, and even takes it in the other direction, creating hate. Guilt is an obstacle that had to be conquered, but others have identified as many as 21 reasons why Christ came. See the references below.
Other verses in the Bible create a great deal of context within which to interpret the Bible. Before Christ, the Prophet Micah was one of the few who tried to summarize the essence of the Bible. He said in Micah 6:8, "He has showed you, O' man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."
Justice was not a word until a couple of centuries before the Bible was translated into English, but the idea was present, expressed by the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) over and over again. It meant taking care of widows, orphans, the needy, being merciful, and using accurate measures in business. It was far from our idea of punishing those who break laws.
Jesus, when asked which is the greatest commandment, replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
"Loving God" is not a romantic idea. It might have been easier to say, to always be mindful of justice towards others, compassion, mercy, and taking care of others in their need - the things expressed in many of the laws. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." But just saying it that way doesn't put God as the leader. God leads, and directs your path toward serving others.
These two verses establish the primary context for interpreting the Bible. When interpretation fall outside of these, we're on dangerous ground. But even people who have used this context have sometimes gone round the bend in interpreting. It is easy to be misled.
Matthew part 1
The following covers large parts of chapters of the Bible. You might want to read the chapters referenced.
Mt. 3 Jesus began his ministry with his central message, forgiveness. He and John had strong words against religious hypocrites who did nothing good, but loved their power and distorted teachings. They would be separated and destroyed. The emphasis was not on religious heritage (or what you know), or following laws even if they hurt people, but on what people do, which largely means how people treat others.
Mt 4:17 "... repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." The kingdom of God is now and forever, and all who enter into it by following the way of Christ will not be judged. As he says in other places, Christ did not come to judge the world.
Mt. 4: 23 - 25 Christ did miracles to show his authority. Saying you were a prophet and had a message from God was something that anyone could say. People could say anything. The miracles that Jesus did were to show that his authority was not his own, but from God.
Mt. 5 His first sermon in Matthew, (Sermon on the Mount), was a message of hope to those who are poor, hungry for right conduct, those who willing endure others misconduct (meek) for greater gain, those who show mercy, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. He called these people the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To put it another way, they are the foundation of this world, not the leaders nor the rich and powerful. The hope of the world resides in them.
Mt. 5: 17- 48 Jesus explained in great detail how the Law condemns and what is expected of each person, and how each person "...must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." During this period of his ministry, Jesus helped the Jewish people understand how following the Law is impossible. It is more difficult than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. But God is merciful and loves to forgive.
Mt. 5: 20 (NIV) "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Mt. 5:48 (NIV) "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Mt. 6 Jesus explained the difference between an attitude full of religious pride and public displays versus an attitude of humility. He also explained the problem of loving money and power, and how it corrupts a pure heart. Is there another way? Seek God first, and he will make sure your needs are met.
Mt. 7 Jesus warns against judging others. You put yourself back under judgment when you do, and you may have different shortcomings, but you will be judged as harshly as you judge others. The value of forgiveness is that it puts you immediately in good standing in God's kingdom, and when you judge others, you are back under judgment.
Mt. 7: 15 - 20 False prophets are everywhere, coming to people with appealing messages that suit what they want to hear (today, think ideologies). But these people and their messages produce nothing of any benefit to anyone. They don't have pure hearts and their path is destruction.
Summarizing what Jesus said: Putting God first, always redirects you to loving others. Everything in the Bible is about this one thing. Put God first in your life, and he in turn will put others first in your life, so that you are concerned enough about them to help them.
Why God's leadership? Many believe they don't need a leader. More power to them. But leadership brings focus to things. It moves things forward in a consistent direction, and does so much more quickly. It resolves problems that otherwise become obstacles that stop the train. Putting the way of God first is important.
Love, in this usage, is a verb (action) and doesn't refer to the degree you like, or are attracted to, someone. We are asked as followers of Christ to even want the best for our enemies.
It's as simple and complicated as that. Religion is not a list of laws to follow. It's a way of life.
Sadly today, people pick and choose which of the Ten Commandments they want to follow, and often choose other laws from the 613 that they want to force others to follow.
If you would like to know more about the types of laws and ethics in the Bible, and if and when these 613 laws apply, read the excellent book, "The Ethical Vision of the Bible."
For further reading on what the Bible is about:
Next: Who can enter the kingdom? (Mt. 8 - 14)
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Part 2: Who Can Enter the Kingdom (Mt. 8 - 14)
Mt. 8: Jesus shows that everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, including the despised and shunned, including the diseased who were not considered pure (lepers), and even despised foreign soldiers occupying their land. He remarked about the soldier's bountiful faith, which was even greater than what he found in Israel. The faithful and pure of heart were more acceptable than those who claimed inheritance but were impure in heart.
Mt. 9: Jesus demonstrates his authority to forgive sins, and is immediately accused of speaking irreverently, a serious offence. He said the accusers were thinking evil.
In this same chapter, he sat at a table with tax collectors, who were despised, and other sinners. Again the religious leaders accused him, but he said, "I desire Mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Jesus made it plain that he viewed the religious leaders as hypocrites who could not understand, and who would never go to the impure, while he wanted to minister to them.
He also broke the rule about fasting in this chapter. The strict laws or rules that the Jews lived by at the time, seemed to make no difference to Jesus, as long as there was something important to do to help others. Mercy, not sacrifice. And he performed the miracle of healing people over and over again.
Toward the end of the chapter, Jesus said something we should take note of: Mt. 9: 35 - 38 (NIV) "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”"
Jesus saw people in great need. Even more than he could take care of. The lines were endless. Every turn in their lives brought more problems and they had no way to deal with them ("they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd"). He didn't say, let them raise themselves up by their own bootstraps, nor did he say, let them suffer, nor did he say let them help each other. No, he said, send more workers to help them. And he said to ask the Lord of the Harvest for them. That means that the wealthy land owners should send people to help. Land ownership was very important in Israel, and was inherited. The Romans held the government, so they would not be able to help. The religious leaders had already demonstrated that they wouldn't help. So the closest help was those with land and wealth, the Lords of the Harvest.
In Chapter 10, Jesus is still doing his ministry to the Jews in Israel. As shown, that doesn't mean that he wouldn't help others, but for that time, the Jews were his mission. So he sent out his disciples with the same authority as himself, to be the workers, but not to go to the non-Jews or Samaritans. And not to do it for money. Well, that's kind of anti-capitalist. He flaunted his disregard for power and money. Is it any surprise that many leaders were calling his ministry, the work of the devil? (Mt. 9:24, 10:25.)
Jesus knows that the things he is saying and doing are contentious. Religious quarrels are very contentious and often lead to war. In this chapter he talks a great deal about the conflict he is bringing. Many of the people and leaders will want to kill him and each other. This is true even in today's world. People can't stand change, especially when it comes to religion. They fight wars over it. Today there are some who believe that passages in the Bible that go against their conservative values, are trying to find scholars to remove those passages, calling them inaccurate.
Matthew 11 What is lawful?
Jesus starts out this chapter again doing what the Jews felt was not lawful, that is, harvesting grain to eat on their holy day (Sabbath). Again, they accused him. They would have preferred his disciples to remain hungry, than to eat. Again, in Mt. 12:7 he tells them, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. And again they questioned him about healing a man on the Sabbath. So the leaders decided they would find a way to destroy Jesus.
Mt. 18-21 Foreshadows a change in Jesus ministry, which will go to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
He talks basically about hard hearts in Mt. 12: 31, 32. He says that every sin can be forgiven except one. Those who will not listen to the Spirit of God (kind of like your conscience), can't be forgiven. In other words, if you know what is right, but willfully go ahead and do wrong anyway, there is no forgiveness. Not now, and not ever. There are those who can't have faith, but they can know good from evil. They will be judged for the balance. The viper, out of his evil heart, brings about only evil. More of the passage describes how evil attracts more evil, especially when good is not present.
Mt. 12:50 Jesus addresses a very contentious issue. Who is your brother? "For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother, sister, and mother." He has already made it plain that those with a pure heart, even if they are foreign soldiers, diseased, tax collectors... can all be brought into the Kingdom of God, which is now, if they follow the way of Christ. Not perfect, but forgiven. And even those who don't believe, will be judged fairly based on what they have done. God wants mercy, not sacrifice, and sacrifice meant following rules that are made simply to help people.
Matthew 13 - Those tired of listening, and easily distracted
In this chapter Jesus talks about those whose hearts and ears are tired of listening. Their being is easily preoccupied with other things, and what God wants is of less importance to them than whatever is popular or consuming at the moment. For example, these people might be preoccupied with scandal. They might go and jeer others who are less fortunate and parade their material things around in front of them. They might be in a constant race to see who can acquire the most things. They might ignore the poor while reveling in their wealth. Sports games might be more important to them than helping others. Yeah, the Word of God might be true about how we should treat others, but so what. You can just do what you want to do. Who cares. My job is making money. Let someone else worry about the poor. So nothing constructive takes root in their being. It goes in one ear and out the other, and they quickly move on to something else, especially when under pressure.
Mt. 13:52 Near the end of this chapter, Jesus mentions the value of what is old and what is new. Knowledge and experience is increased to create a new understanding. You can reflect on what Jesus said about the laws that he broke. He helped them to a new understanding. A deeper understanding of religion comes from the experience of new things.
In this chapter, one of Jesus' cohorts, John the Baptist, is captured and killed. The times are dangerous, and Jesus is forced to say many things in hidden language, and often escape into the countryside or sea. As he walks on water, the disciples, like many other people, recognize that Jesus is the Son of God, not just Son of Man. But even when realizing this and watching what he does, like most of us, they don't have enough faith to walk on water.
So we learn in these chapters that anyone can enter the Kingdom of God, which is now, and everyone can be forgiven. Purity of heart is the goal, even for those who don't believe. And pure hearts are more receptive. But there are three problems. There are those whose hearts and minds are hard or uncaring, and nothing spiritual takes hold in them. There are those who disregard the Spirit of God (like their conscience), and can't be forgiven. And there are those who follow the Laws without concern for who it hurts, like the Sadducees did, and that just doesn't get you there, especially if you die in that state. But God is merciful and loves to forgive.
If you are open to God and open to understanding new things, then new understandings will follow. We also learn that the Lords of the Harvest (those who have wealth), are responsible for seeing to the needs of those who are needy. This isn't cast as capitalism or socialism, nor does it go into specifics of how this should be done, whether through church, government, non-profit agencies, or what. It just says you're responsible, so find a mechanism and do it.
Pope Francis, in his message to Congress on September. 24, 2015, said, "You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you."
"Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good."
"If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort."
"Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."
"...in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem."
"Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good."
"Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a "culture of care" and "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature." "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology"; "to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power"; and to put technology "at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral."
Read more: Politico
Next: More from the Book of Matthew: What is Greatness?
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What is Greatness? Matthew 15 - 21
In Matthew chapters 15 - 21, Jesus tells us about the nature of the people who will enter into the Kingdom of God, the great and the not so great. He turns upside down our thinking about what greatness is.
Who is a great person? Who will be the first to enter into the Kingdom of life (which is now)? Is it a self-made billionaire, or even a person who has a successful business he started himself? Is it a religious leader? Is it someone who has tried to follow all of the "Don't Do" in the Bible? Is it a powerful politician? Is it people who follow their traditions?
Some of the religious leaders came to Jesus in Mt. 15:1 and asked him why his followers didn't follow Jewish traditions. He said in similar words, "You hypocrites. Why do you displace what is right, with your traditions?" He indicated that what your body consumes isn't what affects your morality, but what comes out of your mouth, which is what is in your heart. Evil thoughts: murder, adultery, obsession with sex, theft, false witness, slander.... It is very easy for traditions to become religion and spirituality and guide our actions, to the exclusion of things that are important, good, and right.
He tells his followers in Mt. 16: 6-12 to beware of the teachings of religious leaders. Power, money, position, traditions, doctrines - they all overshadow or displace what Jesus taught, what is good and right. We have those leaders today. Some emphasize following laws and traditions, even if it hurts people and drives others away. Some emphasize a personal God, while neglecting Jesus' teachings about helping others. Some emphasize enhancing personal power, wealth, position, or reputation, as if these were the only things that mattered. What matters is how we treat others - this shows what is in our hearts.
In Mt: 16, again the religious leaders came to him to test him. He said to them, paraphrased, you know what? You can see the weather is about to change, but you have blinded yourselves to the signs of the times (or in context, signs that the times are changing). Blind. You look for maybe something in the weather, or a groundhog, or a bright star, to give you a heads up. But you likely wouldn't believe them, either. An evil and adulterous generation looks for signs. You're not going to get one.
Evil and adulterous means that goodness is not in their hearts, but only their own desires and ambitions, and they aren't faithful to God, but to some list of rules and traditions.
In Chapter 16, when his followers recognized that he, Jesus, was the one sent as the Christ, the Messiah, the one who was to take them into a new era and deliver them, he told them that God had revealed that to them. This had not been revealed to the religious leaders, who would misuse it or try to thwart it because they wanted a military leader who would free them from the Romans, and they treasured their way of life, and Laws and traditions more than God.
How soon would the Kingdom of Christ occur? Not in some far off time. Mt: 16: 28 "Truly [straight up, word, this is very true], I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
In Mt. 17:27, even Jesus paid his taxes. The government has its place, and the Roman government was certainly not equated with God and religion. Christ didn't come to overthrow the government, no matter how badly the Jews didn't like it, and even if the Roman officials did abominable things (so morally offensive it deserved death), the government was neither an instrument of God nor refuted.
The followers of Jesus then got to the point. They had been given many powers that other mere mortals didn't have, and Jesus considered them better than the religious leaders. How high were they, and what positions could they expect? In Mt. 18, Jesus simply called a child into their midst, and said that whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom. He threw their will to power back in theif faces. It might be better for you to destroy your body than to hurt one of these. Their angels are always in the presence of God. The most important person would leave his group and look for one of these children until he found him, and then be delighted.
How many times should we forgive others? Seventy times seven, but don't bother to count, it's a metaphor. You yourself receive forgiveness. If you fail to forgive others, it will go badly for you.
In chapter 19, the leaders again came to test him. Jesus knew that their hearts were hard. Jesus teachings on divorce were hard. So they asked, why did Moses allow divorce? Jesus said, because your hearts are hard. So the disciples wondered why should anybody get married then, knowing they might live lives of misery. In the Jewish tradition, marriage was all but inevitable, and those who didn't marry were suspect.
Eunuchs were considered impure, and not allowed in the Temple. But Jesus advised them, if you don't want to marry and risk divorce, it might be better to destroy your sexuality and become impure. This would be better than marrying and then divorcing. But in those days, women mostly could not get along financially without a husband. Today is a bit different. The times are changing, if anyone cares to notice the signs of the times. And most religious groups seem to have taken notice of this change. They will, however, ban homosexuality, which Jesus never even mentioned.
Then came a man who asked, what good deed do I need to do to have life in the Kingdom? Like one good deed is going to get you in. Jesus replied, keep the commandments: don't kill, steal, adultery, false witness, honor your mother and father, love your neighbor as yourself. Well, he figured he had done all of those. So Jesus said, be perfect. Sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me. The man became very upset because he was very wealthy. Apparently it was better to have wealth than to follow Jesus and have life.
So Jesus reiterated to them that a camel could go through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man gets through the pearly gates. His followers were astonished. and wondered who could possibly meet these conditions of perfection. But Jesus said, "With men this is impossible. But with God all things are possible." He said this because he was impressing on people that following laws will not give people life in the Kingdom. It is only by the grace of God that we are accepted. It is because we are forgiven.
He concluded this chapter by saying, "many that are first will be last, and the last first." It is not our position, status, wealth, or any other condition that men take notice of and admire, that gets us in the Kingdom. It is free and unmerited favor.
He says in 20:25,26, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [non-Jews] lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus wrath then goes on public display. He was especially angry at those who served religion, but did so to serve themselves. It was crazy that the entire growing population would continue to bring live animals to the Temple for sacrifice. So money changers at the front sold pigeons, which were supposedly sacrificed by others.
This was a game as ridiculous as traffic tickets today that are immediately fixed in court by lawyers so there is no penalty - devoid of any meaning or significant corrective penalty. If you have a little money, you can speed with near impunity. The system in Jesus time had become equally ridiculous and devoid of meaning, and rather than find its true meaning, the system had devolved into a money-making scheme for money lenders. Religion has to adapt - it is there to serve people, which Jesus said over and over. But this was just commerce for personal gain. He threw over their tables and money. He said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer." There was the meaning and intent that they could not find.
He then stopped by a fig tree to eat, but discovered it was barren. It looked like a fig tree; it had leaves and everything. But it had no fruit. He used it as a metaphor for people who are fully functional and may even be pregnant with talent, but don't do anything for anyone else. He destroyed it. It is much less important what we believe than what is in our hearts and comes out in our actions. A pure heart does good things. A selfish heart is barren. People might have great power, be leaders of millions, be richer than God, but if they do nothing for others, they are barren.
His followers spaced the metaphor. They were simply astonished that the fig tree withered immediately. How did you do that?!
Jesus then asked the leaders a question. He said a man asked several people if they would do some work, and they all said they would, but they didn't. He asked one person who said he wouldn't, but he did anyway. Which do you think did God's work? They thought that the first did. Jesus replied, the tax collectors and harlots believe, but you won't, so they will enter the kingdom before you. And he continued to chastise them with parables that showed their utter lack of faithfulness and knowledge of God's word, until he finally said, "The Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it." He built on the theme of the barren fig tree.
Jesus words were ominous. These religious leaders had failed in their mission, thinking that simply observing religious laws and customs were what was required of them: the "Don'ts," which got very strict. They would earn their place before God with just not doing anything against the law. In the other Gospels, he takes his ministry to the non-Jews (Samaritans, Gentiles), the other nations, and in the end of his days, he sends his Apostles with the Good News to all of the known world.
What we learn from Christ so far is that you simply can't earn your place before God. It is only by his grace that you are acceptable, if you ask forgiveness. You must forgive others, or you lose your forgiveness. Children are more pure of heart than the rest of us, and it is our responsibility to teach them to have a pure heart. They have preference above any others before God, and we are to be like them, pure in heart.
Leaders have a major responsibility to recognize the signs of the times, and help the church adjust to the times. In their responsibility given to them, they are more at risk before God. They have to understand what religion is for (for man, not God), and adjust it so it works well. Otherwise, like many religious denominations today, it ceases to serve the people. Their work is to be a servant, not an exalted person, who benefits the people. Those who only serve themselves with their wealth, their positions, their power, are not well thought of in the kingdom of God.
Mt: 19: 18,19: "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."
Mt. 18: 17, 18: "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."
Jewish usage at that time for binding and loosing: "...declaring of propositions true or false, or judging things lawful or unlawful." - Matthew Poole's Commentary
Note that the RSV language, "shall have been," points to something that has already occured in heaven, so what is bound is a reflection of heaven and must be by divine inspiration. In the NIV, it is shortened to "will be," but alternately reads " will have been."
Next: Coming Soon, Mt. 22 - 28 Judgment - just like the kingdom is now
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