Wednesday 3 July 2024

Jesus Investigated, Questioned, Interrogated

 Jesus investigated, questioned, interrogated

Opposition to Jesus developed and expanded until the final deadly stage. Quite early on the Pharisees and others began making inquiries about him. The findings must have been alarming. However, before that growing and aggressive concern over Jesus, there was another question for the established leaders. (Spoiler alert: this is a comprehensive, lengthy, post!)

In those days, a man, probably unknown previously, known to us as John the Baptist, began proclaiming to Israel exciting and challenging news: during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, God’s word came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the vicinity of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:2-3, CSB). Or, as Matthew put it: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Matthew 3:1-2, CSB. Interest grew and evidently word of mouth lead to large numbers out there in the "wilderness". Mark tells us: From all Judea and Jerusalem crowds of people went to John. They told how sorry they were for their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan River (Mark 1:5, CEV). John the Baptist is reported in all four Gospels. He became a popular and well-remembered figure, and a very plain-speaking one. The focus appears to be on Judea, but Galilee was touched.

Unsurprisingly the leaders were troubled: And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight[a] the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:19-25, ESV). John told them there was someone greater than himself who was coming. He was the herald.

Were the senders (Pharisees) satisfied? Certainly they knew that John was held in high esteem by the people. (I note the priests and Levites had been sent by “the Jews”; they were from the Pharisees. I think that means the elite of the Jerusalem Pharisees had selected a party to investigate.

Jesus' activities then seem to have paralleled John's for time, including offering baptism for repentance. However, John was removed from the scene by Herod the tetrach, who was offended by the truth. John was arrested, and later killed.

Jesus evidently continued, but not without his being noted. Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee (John 4:1-3, NIV). The Pharisees appeared to be on high alert. John might no longer be their concern but now there was the issue of that man from Galilee who had followed John. Somehow Jesus learned that the Pharisees were taking note of him and it was best to leave Judea.

In Galilee Jesus continued the message: Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News.[a] “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14-15, NLT). This brief statement summarises the message and the call for response. Forgiveness was(is) needed and was(is) possible. It was time! 

Although Jesus had been welcomed in the Galilee region, it was a different story when he taught there in his childhood synagogue in Nazareth, quoting Isaiah 61. At first it seemed impressive, but the congregants were not having it: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown (Luke 4:22-24, NRSVUE). In fact, Luke tells us Jesus’ further words about Israel missing out; and the congregants (I presume, male) did not want him there: When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way (Luke 4:28-30, NRSVUE). The Gospel writers do not report that there was any central authority involved in the Nazareth rejection. Perhaps we see the potential for total community (male) upheaval when there was any question about Israel.

The accounts give me the impression of Jesus criss-crossing Galilee and teaching. I take it his message was as above.

Then I come to what I assume was the next recorded official inquiry. This was on a return visit to Jesus’ home city, Capernaum. (I wonder what home - Mark - he had there?) On one of those days while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and also from Jerusalem. And the Lord’s power to heal was in him (Luke 5:17, CSB). It seems there were very many there to observe! Luke calls them “scribes and Pharisees”. If Jesus had been restricting himself to Galilee, the presence of men also from Jerusalem and Judea suggests widespread growing concern. Jesus’ forgave a paralysed man’s sins and answered the critics by healing him.

Jesus kept on the move; the critics did not go away. Some of the teachers of the Law of Moses were Pharisees, and they saw Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. So they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”Jesus heard them and answered,  “Healthy people don't need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn't come to invite good people to be my followers. I came to invite sinners” Mark 2:16-17, CEV). Jesus was adding to the reasons he was deemed by the “upright” to be unacceptable. They saw themselves as needing no cure - from sin.

Interlude. Jesus was then asked about his followers’ lack of fasting. The Synoptics all report this questioning (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5), which appears to come from the circle of John the Baptist, not from the elite. That fits with the "soft", explanatory, kind of answer Jesus gave on that.

A very specific question did come from John the Baptist, then in prison: John's followers told John everything that was being said about Jesus. So he sent two of them to ask the Lord, “Are you the one we should be looking for? Or must we wait for someone else?” (Luke 7:18-19. CEV). Are you the one? That was (is) the critical issue. The answer Jesus gave may have encouraged John. I am confident Jesus welcomes honest questions and wants to give answers.

Many more interactions were to come. After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews[a] were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews' Feast of Booths was at hand (John 7:1-2, ESV). Had Judea become "too hot"? Jerusalem was the heart of Judea. (Luke 4:44 does say Jesus had been going about in Judea, but Galilee is an alternative reading there.) Eventually, during the Feast, Jesus did “privately” go to Jerusalem. Response was mixed: The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?” And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews (John 7:11-13, NRSVUE). There was more! (Note there the use of “the Jews” - feared by the crowds…) Jesus asked the crowd why they were trying to kill him. That got an indignant response. Interactions continued: At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from” (John 7:25-27, NIV). The pericope makes it clear that there was dissension about Jesus amongst people (men?), and a strong opposition from “the authorities”.

Any (in their eyes) “misdemeanour” would raise objection. All the Synoptics tell of the grain “offence”: One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples broke off heads of grain, rubbed off the husks in their hands, and ate the grain. But some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?” (Luke 6:1-2, NLT). The answer Jesus gave must have confounded the critics: the priests work on the Sabbath, but are not guilty! Moreover, also noted in that pericope, “unlawful” things have happened, in the “Temple”, to meet human need. Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath, so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, NRSVUE). Whoops! The reaction was not given! (The whole report is also in Matthew 9 and Luke 5 and should be read there.)

On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. A man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The scribes and Pharisees were watching him closely, to see if he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a charge against him. But he knew their thoughts and told the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand here.”[a] So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you: Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at them all, he told him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did, and his hand was restored.[b] They, however, were filled with rage and started discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:6-11, CSB). There was back and forth about sabbath healing and about doing good or harm. Apparently a charge would be inadequate to deal with Jesus. The end of the pericope has Matthew saying: Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus (Matthew 12:14, NLT). Mark reveals that the consultation included the Herod’s supporters; so there were scribes, Pharisees and Herodians now scheming Jesus’ downfall by his death. That is very clear, and critical.

The chronology is not clear but the report of the threat comes quite early in the run of the Synoptic texts. Further on Matthew has the account of a soldier’s trust and includes the solemn prediction: When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised that he turned and said to the crowd following him, “I tell you in all of Israel I've never found anyone with this much faith! Many people will come from everywhere to enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain” (Matthew 8:10-12, CEV). Despite their ancestral links, people were excluding themselves. The door was opening to those willing to enter.

Back in Capernaum there was an occasion with many, many, people gathered with Jesus. Some friends managed to get a paralysed man through the roof into Jesus’ presence. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?…And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today” (Luke 5:20-23, 26; ESV). Could the scribes and Pharisees really be included in that “all”? At least some of them wanted Jesus gone! (The man was forgiven and healed.)

And there was a dinner. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the [fn]sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating with tax collectors and [fn]sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus *said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:16-17, NASB20). Why? Why does he disregard proper conduct? Jesus had no fear of contamination, but here to them was another example of his disreputable behaviour. He was not on their side.

There was conflict over the casting out of demons. Something unheard of was happening. People were amazed and wondered about Jesus. But there was a divergent view: And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (Mark 3:22, NIV). Matthew has Pharisees saying the same.

Connected by the Synoptics to the above Beelzebul conflict, there are grim (and encouraging) words: “I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.” He told them this because they were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit” (Mark 3:28-30, NLT). Very serious matter indeed to go against God’s voice within; to call good, evil and evil, good; to reject the one who wants to forgive. All sin can be forgiven.

At least once: The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him (Mark 8:11, NRSVUE). They demanded Jesus do something that would convince them! “Just make us”, as it were. There may well have been multiple such demands. Luke (and Matthew, twice) have answers: As the crowds were increasing, he began saying, “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.[a] For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation (Luke 11:29-30, CSB). Consider Jesus, his life, death and resurrection! (Well, we can do that right now!) However , they had Jesus right there in front of them.

At some point Jesus began teaching publicly in parables. The critics will see, but not see; will hear, but not hear (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). Was this in response to the condemnation from the opposition? Had they finally proved it time to stop “casting pearls” before them? If they reversed their thinking, they could still hear…

John’s Gospel also reports the growing conflict, though in a different way. For example: The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:15-18, ESV). Note the “all the more” - not new; just reinforced intention. I imagine these two complaints were actually the major ones, even though there were others (see above).

All four Gospels recount the feeding of a very large group (the men were about 5,000). John included a segment which surely lead to more discontent: After the people had seen Jesus work this miracle,[a] they began saying, “This must be the Prophet[b] who is to come into the world!” Jesus realized that they would try to force him to be their king. So he went up on a mountain, where he could be alone (John 6:14-15, CEV). Did they feel scorned, or thwarted, and thus brewed up fury?

Eating provided more than one source of conflict. Then some Pharisees and scribes *came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves also break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:1-3, NASB20). The interrogation went on and Jesus raised the specific matter of avoiding care for parents. So, for the sake of your tradition, you nullify the word[a] of God (Matthew 15:6, NRSVUE). He would not allow their own teaching to negate the Bible. The pericope includes Jesus making the striking statement: Summoning the crowd, he told them, “Listen and understand: It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came up and told him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” (Matthew 15:10-12, CSB). No doubt that offence would continue to be worried over henceforth.

Trying to discredit Jesus continued. The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. He told them: If the sky is red in the evening, you say the weather will be good. But if the sky is red and gloomy in the morning, you say it is going to rain. You can tell what the weather will be like by looking at the sky. But you don't understand what is happening now.[a] You want a sign because you are evil and won't believe! But the only sign you will be given is what happened to Jonah.[b] Then Jesus left (Mathew 16:1-4. CEV). It is sadly possible to be wilfully blind to the truth. I wonder if any did later respond to the sign of Jesus' resurrection? I hope so.

Jesus himself had a question for his own followers. Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:18-22, ESV). No doubt if those followers then began publicising that truth about Jesus’ identity, the political impact would be great. Social upheaval would not depend on the followers' leading it; history shows that many in the community were ready, and needed only a cue! (The followers themselves were not exempt from Israel kingdom ambition - see John 14:22; Acts 1:6.) 

However, It is clear that the followers did not that day take in what Jesus was saying. They had a question which may indicate how they found comfort in these stressful times: The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13, NIV). They had been considering. Now, they were clear, at least on John’s role. Understanding for them came after the suffering (and resurrection). Does this seem to contradict what John had said about himself (see above)? Jesus says Elijah had already come, and they understood how. (Care is needed in interpreting future promises.)

There were some people - individuals - who could recognise the truth of Jesus’ answers and his teaching. Jesus gave some scoffing Sadducees an unexpected answer to their absurd imaginary conundrum: Then Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead. They posed this question: “Teacher, Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife but no children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.[a] ….But in the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage. And they will never die again. In this respect they will be like angels. They are children of God and children of the resurrection….“Well said, Teacher!” remarked some of the teachers of religious law who were standing there. And then no one dared to ask him any more questions (Luke 20:27-28; 35-36; 39-40, NLT). Well, they did not come back! But there were others..

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, an expert in the law, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘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 and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSVUE). I wonder what those gathered Pharisees expected Jesus to say? Did they think he would be stumped? It was a clear answer, and one readily accepted by the one expert. However, the rest of the pericope has that man going away discomforted because Jesus made the “neighbour” question very stark and uncomfortable. [See the rest of that pericope in Luke - He (the expert) said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise (Luke 12:37). How very relevant for us.]

In Jerusalem during the last week there were pointed questions: One day, Jesus was teaching in the temple and telling the good news. So the chief priests, the teachers, and the nation's leaders asked him, “What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I want to ask you a question. Who gave John the right to baptize? Was it God in heaven or merely some human being?” They talked this over and said to each other, “We can't say God gave John this right. Jesus will ask us why we didn't believe John. And we can't say it was merely some human who gave John the right to baptize. The crowd will stone us to death, because they think John was a prophet.” So they told Jesus, “We don't know who gave John the right to baptize” (Luke 20:1-7, CEV). The leaders knew they had not authorised Jesus! They also knew the question of John the Baptist was a sensitive one; one to be avoided. Jesus and John did what God wanted them to do. That answer was unacceptable!The opponents did not give up.

The next attack came very soon. Watching for their opportunity, the leaders sent spies pretending to be honest men. They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their trickery and said, “Show me a Roman coin.[a] Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.“Well then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” So they failed to trap him by what he said in front of the people. Instead, they were amazed by his answer, and they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26, NLT). Roman taxation had become more onerous. The population had no say in the matter. I wonder what "the people" thought of Jesus' answer? Did the leaders really hope Jesus would defy the ruling power (Rome/Caesar)? I suppose the questioners (spies) wanted to avoid official notice! Of course the leaders knew the concept of defying Rome was popular. If Jesus came across as pro-Roman, he would be a great disappointment, or worse, to the crowds.

Investigations might be ended but vigilance continued: One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child[a] or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say (Luke 14:1-6, NIV). The opposition had reached a point of knowing they had no answers nor viable objections.

Complaints had been ongoing. Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15:1-7, NLT). Silenced again! It may be that different groups of critics are featured in these pericopes. 

Opposition and Conflict

Questions may be asked to gain understanding. Questions may be asked to find fault. Questions may be asked to prove guilt. Things may be said, with implied questions of the critical kind.

Luke records ongoing instances of dispute between the elite and Jesus. I do not think they expected to change him, but maybe they hoped to show him up to the populace? They risked being bested - shamed for their attitudes. Could the different groups let it go?

Woe to you Pharisees! You love the front seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.“Woe to you![a] You are like unmarked graves; the people who walk over them don’t know it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things you insult us too.” Then he said, “Woe also to you experts in the law! You load people with burdens that are hard to carry, and yet you yourselves don’t touch these burdens with one of your fingers (Luke 11:43-46, CSB). Perhaps the law experts also expected to be esteemed.

We see an instance of a stealthy local level critic. One Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and a woman was there who had been crippled by an evil spirit for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. When Jesus saw the woman, he called her over and said, “You are now well.” He placed his hands on her, and at once she stood up straight and praised God. The man in charge of the synagogue was angry because Jesus had healed someone on the Sabbath. So he said to the people, “Each week has six days when we can work. Come and be healed on one of those days, but not on the Sabbath.” The Lord replied, “Are you trying to fool someone? Won't any one of you untie your ox or donkey and lead it out to drink on a Sabbath? This woman belongs to the family of Abraham, but Satan has kept her bound for 18 years. Isn't it right to set her free on the Sabbath?” Jesus' words made his enemies ashamed. But everyone else in the crowd was happy about the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17, CEV). The crowd was happy with Jesus - maybe they remained so. This leader may represent others?

Did the opponents want to find something, any means, to put Jesus at a disadvantage?

Jesus was teaching as he went towards Jerusalem. At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem’  (Luke 13:31-33, ESV). Hard to believe the Pharisees wanted to help. Jesus’ reply supports the interpretation that they were being cunning. 

Some forms of parable were obvious even to the sceptical. Jesus had some “black and white” teaching on the lure of wealth. No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”[a] The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16:13-15, NRSVUE). Jesus says we cannot be enslaved to money but also serve God. It is one or the other. They found Jesus' words to be an object of ridicule, to be scoffed at. Like them, we have no trouble getting things upside down and back to front. God wants to give us the straight and narrow path that leads to life.

Do you have questions for Jesus? 

 May God bless you

Allen Hampton


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