Seven Woes
on the Torah-Teachers and the Pharisees

Matthew 23:1-29; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47

Wednesday the thirteenth of Nisan

DIG: How would you recognize these Torah-Teachers and Pharisees walking down the street? How did they stumble common people? How did they pray? What was the problem with their phylacteries? What was the root of their sin? In what sense were these woes curses? Can you summarize each woe? Were the seven woes directed at all Israelites? What is the context? How and when was their house left desolate?

REFLECT: A haughty attitude can nullify any ministry that we might have, either inside or outside your place of worship. What’s your attitude been like lately? Is it hindering or enhancing your bridge to others? Are you making your relationship with God more complicated than it needs to be? Are you consistently speaking words that are true and bring the blessings of ADONAI to those around us? Even while admitting our imperfections, is your inner life basically consistent with your outer behavior? Are you merely concerned with the letter of the Torah, or are you also focused on the spiritual intent of the Torah? How? Why? When?

Because the apostate religious leaders recognized that Messiah’s answers were so convincing that many were believing in Him, no one dared to ask Him any more questions (Mattityahu 22:46; Mark 34b and 37).

This is Christ’s last public proclamation. After this He will be alone with His apostles and the cross. Here, Messiah talks to His talmidim and the masses about the Jewish religious leaders, giving a strong, straightforward teaching to those who knowingly rejected Him. Since this teaching takes place close to His last Passover, it represents the Lord’s final indictment against some of the dysfunctional and contrary attitudes of some Torah-teachers and Pharisees. There would not be many questions but an avalanche of observations from One who can see the hearts of mankind. Jesus went on the offensive.

Then Jesus said to the crowds in the Court of the Gentileswith His apostles also listening: Beware of the Torah-teachers. They and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. In the first-century synagogue there was a visible place of honor called the seat of Moses where the rabbi would teach from the Torah. So they should have commanded a certain amount of respect and attention. Somewhat surprisingly, Yeshua affirms you must be careful to do everything they tell you. That was to be expected and was commonly understood; however, He added an important forewarning. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matthew 23:1-3). Therefore, Jesus declared that they were hypocrites.

This verse must be the lens through which the following teaching is understood. The manner in which Yeshua addressed many of the traditional customs in the following verses has led some critics to conclude that He was attacking Judaism itself. But we must remember that He told the people you must be careful to do everything the Torah-teachers and the Pharisees accurately tell you to do. Obviously, the main problem addressed in this section is not any particular Jewish custom per se, but the hypocritical attitude of the spiritual leaders of Isra’el. We have seen, in fact that Messiah observed some of the very customs that He addressed, like wearing the fringes. This section is not a wholesale condemnation of every Torah-teacher or Pharisee. Many were very sincere and some of them, like Nicodemus (John 3), even became believers!

Unfortunately, the vast majority were wicked. In a strong rabbinic hyperbole, He paints a picture of the common Jew being burdened by a huge load, while the religious leaders merely stood by and watched. He said: They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Mattityahu 23:4). They made the Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) a burden to others while finding ways to get around it themselves.

Yeshua continued to expose them. They were self-righteous and self-seeking. Their very dress separated them from all others. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries, or tephillin, wide and the tassels on their garments long (Matthew 23:5). This was the ancient custom of wearing leather boxes on both the arm and forehead to fulfill the biblical commandment of the Sh’ma passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Within the leather boxes, tiny handwritten parchments with the Sh’ma passage and other parallel verses (Deut 11:13-21; Exodus 13:1-16). Israelites were directed to remember the commandments of the Torah by tying them in this way as a sign. Like everything else, the Pharisees problem was pride in making their phylacteries bigger than necessary and their tassels longer than necessary to show how spiritual they were.1300

It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of the tephillin to the Pharisees. They were revered more highly than the Scriptures. The rabbis taught that it was more punishable to act against the Oral Law than against the Scripture. They said if a man were to say, “There is no such thing as tephillin,” thereby acting contrary to the words of Scripture, he is not to be treated as a rebel. But if he should say, “There are five divisions in the tephillin (instead of four in those for the forehead, as the rabbis taught), in order to adding to the words of the Torah-Teachers, he is guilty” (Tractate Sanhedrin 11.3). So with regard to the Pharisees, Jesus said: They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. And He directly warned them: You have let go of the commands of God and are holding to human traditions (Mark 7:7-8).

The rabbis also taught that Moshe had received instruction concerning them from YHVH on Mount Sinai. They said that their phylacteries were more sacred than the golden plate on the forehead of the high priest, since the name of ADONAI was written only once, while the writing inside the tephillin, The Name was written twenty-three times. In fact, they believed that the promised Messiah would wear tephillin.1301

The Pharisees would show their true colors by seeking public recognition and acclaim. They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats, benches up front facing the congregation, in the synagogues; they love to walk around in flowing robes and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others (Mt 23:6-7; Mk 12:38-39). There’s nothing wrong with the term rabbi, pastor, or priest for that matter. Rabbi simply means teacher, and those leaders were the designated rabbis of the community. The problem was that they loved such greetings and titles.

It was easy to see how they might have been elevated, in their own eyes and the eyes of the Jewish community, beyond what Ha'Shem or the Torah intended. The mere knowledge of the Torah became an end to itself. In this respect the testimonies of Onkelos, in his rendering of the oldest Targumim, or pharisaic commentaries of the Mishnah, and the two Talmuds, testified to the importance of the rabbi in Jewish culture. It is said that there was a discussion in the “academy of heaven,” when El-Shaddi and His angels had different opinions in regard to a special point in the Torah. So a rabbi, famed for his knowledge of that subject was summoned up by the angel of death to decide the matter between them! Without going into the details, it’s clear that the rabbi enjoyed such an exalted position that it was assumed that a teacher was to be cared for before one’s father. The thought: We owed only our existence in this world to the latter, but to the former the life in the world to come (Tractate Bab. Mez. 2.11).1302

But that kind of power went to their heads and they felt justified in devouring widows’ houses (Mark 12:40a). People often left their entire fortunes to the Temple, and a good part of the money went to the Torah-Teachers and the Pharisees. This is how their scheme worked. The Pharisees convinced widows to give their houses to the Temple, and then took the proceeds of the sale for themselves with a healthy share going to the Torah-Teachers who were employed to write out wills and conveyances of property. Quite a racket. In order to close the sale, the Pharisees offered lengthy prayers in the houses of the widows and for them. Consequently, they bent the widows to their will. Our Lord calls these prayers pure deception. How could they be true prayers when offered as a means of committing crimes against those who Ha'Shem commanded them to protect (Psalm 68:6 and 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5)?1303

And for a show make lengthy prayers (Mark 12:40b). There was no difficulty in recognizing such a one. Walking behind him in public, chances were very good that he would soon stop to say his prescribed prayers. If the fixed time for them had come, he would stop abruptly in the middle of the road, perhaps say one section of them, move on, stop, say another part, and so on. He left no doubt on anyone’s mind in the market place or on the street corners, that he was very, very spiritual. There he would stand, draw his feet together, compose his body and clothes, then the world around him stopped. The workman would drop his tools, the laborer his load, if a man already had one foot in the stirrup, he would withdraw it. The time for his prayers had come, and nothing could interrupt or disturb him. It was understood by all that the very greeting of a king, or the twisting of a snake around one’s leg must be disregarded until his prayers were finished. On entering a village, and again on leaving it, he needed to say one or two prayers. The same in passing through a fortress, in encountering any danger, in meeting with anything new, strange, beautiful or unexpected. And the longer he prayed the better. Each prayer mentioned and closed with a blessing of the divine Name, blessed be He. And the more he prayed the better. The Pharisees said there was special religious merit to be gained from this, and a hundred prayers said in one day was supposed to be the measure of great piety.1304

While all the people were listening, Jesus turned to His twelve talmidim and said: These men will be punished most severely (Mark 12:40c and Luke 20:45-47). Prayer is always good. Even praying with zeal. But their actions didn’t match up with what the Torah demanded: Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (Deututeremony 27:19). They were putting up a façade of spirituality and Yeshua held them accountable. They used lengthy prayers as a means of profiting financially from the sales of widow’s houses, as if devouring them.

The entire context of this section is about bad attitudes and the abuse of titles. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. With all due respect to earthly leaders, we ultimately have only one true Father in heaven. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called leaders, for you have one Leader, the Messiah (Matthew 23:8-10). Yes, there is a proper place for spiritual leaders and even for the use of the terms honor and respect, but arrogance must be guarded against.

There are some who position themselves between you and ADONAI. There are some suggest the only way to get to the Lord is through them. Some Bible teachers believe that they have the final say on the Word of God. There is the earthly father whom you seek approval. There is the spiritual master who will tell you what YHVH wants you to do. Jesus’ message for all of this is to remove the middlemen. You have one Leader, the Messiah.

He’s not saying that you don’t need teachers, elders, or counselors. He is saying, however, that we are all brothers and sisters and have equal access to the Father. Simplify your faith by seeking God for yourself. No confusing ceremonies necessary. No mysterious rituals required. No elaborate channels of command or levels of access.

You have a Bible? You can study.

A heart? You can pray.

You have a mind. You can think.1305

Those who are true disciples of Christ will prove their leadership abilities by serving others. The greatest among you will be your servant. Yeshua assures the crowd that whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Mattityahu 23:11-12). How contradictory to the belief system of the world. It is not enough to merely observe religious custom. We need to listen the still small voice of the Ruach HaKodesh, and the words of Jesus to examine our attitudes as well.

Then Jesus then turned His attention directly to the Pharisees themselves. Yeshua prefaces each of His seven rebukes with an emotional woe (literally, oy in Hebrew). They were curses in the sense that they were solemn warnings, as the expression of sorrow for their fate. Without their repentance, God’s judgment would be the inevitable consequence for each one of them. These woes are directed to a limited group in the immediate context (There were obviously some sincere, godly Pharisees among the hypocritical). In addition,  we must view Messiah, here, in the same way that we view the prophets of Isra’el, speaking as a concerned Jew to fellow Jews, not as an outsider with an anti-Jewish grudge.1306

1. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to (Mt 23:13-14). Jesus said just the opposite as He emphasized the simplicity of coming into the Kingdom, even stating that we must become like little children (see Gg – The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven). Those counterfeit teachers had polluted the pure message of the TaNaKh.

2. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert. This may sound strange to us today because Jews do not normally proselytize. But there is no doubt that the Judaism of the Second Temple period had an aggressive outreach campaign as part of the call to be a light to the Gentile Nations (Isaiah 49:6). In addition to the number of Gentiles converted during the time when Rome ruled the world, we can add the Edomites. They were forcibly converted in the first century. This was the home community of the notorious Roman convert by the name of Herod the Great. He was therefore the ideal choice of the Romans for a leader who could supposedly relate to the Jewish community. But the Pharisees did not merely succeed in making converts to Judaism. No, they went further than that and also made them converts to the Oral Law, which actually led people away from the purity of the Torah. So in the strongest terms, Messiah warned them that such converts were twice as fit for Gei-Hinnom as they themselves were (Mattityahu 23:15).1307

3. Woe to you. In highly ironic language, Jesus called them blind guides! Those who prided themselves in being spiritual guides to the common people were, in fact, spiritually blind. Christ gave several real life examples of their groping around in the dark. The practice of taking an oath was very common in the first century. In fact, it is so important that an entire Tractate of the Talmud is devoted to the details of taking an oath (Tractate Shevout). There is nothing inherently wrong with taking an oath. It was a common practice and could be beneficial in establishing an agreement. If anyone needed to validate their promises, they could swear by something or someone greater than themselves. In this case, some of the Pharisees solidified their word by swearing by the Temple. This was a strong oath, but there was a way to get around it. You say, “If anyone swears by the Temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the Temple is bound to fulfill that oath” (Matthew 23:16). They were always looking to gain an advantage for themselves.

These were mere word games, and Yeshua rebuked such absurdity as coming from blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? In the same way, you also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.” The whole twisted logic was both theologically and logically preposterous. You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred (Matthew 23:17-19)? It makes no sense that the offering is regarded as more important than the holy altar on which it is presented.

Jesus went on to point out, to swear by the altar was to swear by everything on it. To swear by the Temple was to swear by the One who dwells in it, namely ADONAI Himself. And to swear in the name of heaven, was to swear by God’s throne and by the One who sits on it. In fact, since God is the Creator of everything, to swear by anything at all involves Ha'Shem (Mt 23:20-22).1308

4. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! Next, Messiah exposes some of their misplaced priorities. It was so important that an entire tractate of the Talmud is devoted to such details (Tractate Ma’aser). The title Ma’aser is reflected by the word tenth, so the amount cannot be questioned. The Israelites were required to give ten percent their earnings to the worship of YHVH and the upkeep of the Temple. The Pharisees strongly believed in and applied the entire Torah; therefore, it was not surprising that they were known for their meticulous tithing (Genesis 14:18-20; Deuteronomy 14:22-29). They even tithed right down to the smallest spices. You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Torah - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. In the last analysis, what good is it if we keep track of the small stuff if we neglect the big stuff? You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24). Because insects were not kosher, they strained their soup to make sure it was pure. But for the main course they dined on the equally unkosher camel! The warning was clear: Don’t get sidetracked by the lesser important commandments to the neglect the more important ones.1309

5. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! They were overly concerned with external appearances. While keeping a kosher kitchen, they were quite careful. You clean the outside of the cup and dish. The word kosher itself implies cleanliness, both ritually and literally. This was so important that there is an entire tractate dedicated to utensils and dietary laws (Tractate Kelim). They kept a kosher kitchen, but unkosher actions had crept inside their lives. They are full of greed and self-indulgence. The obvious violations of the spirit of the Torah lead Christ to call such a one a blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Mattityahu 23:25-26).

6. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs. Continuing with the same theme, the Lord switched the illustration from the kitchen to the cemetery. Whitewashing was common in Isra’el around the Passover when this dialogue took place. Pesach and the feast of Unleavened Bread is a time when great emphasis is placed on cleaning (Exodus 12:1-30). The home must be thoroughly cleansed of all leaven and replaced with kosher products. Utensils are either switched or boiled to be made kosher. Inorder not to compromise the ritual purity of the season, it was especially important to take care of any areas that might be a problem. A cemetery was a good example. As unlikely as it might be, if someone accidently brushed up against a tomb it would make them ritually unclean because of the dead body inside. To avoid this possibility, it was customary to clearly mark all tombs with a fresh coat of whitewash.There was nothing sinful with their attempt to be careful not to defile themselves. But then Messiah pointed out a problem, as He described most of the Pharisees with an analogy. They looked beautiful on the outside but on the inside they were full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. Recognizable by their very garb, eighteen garments were supposed to complete his elegant attire. The material, the color and the cut distinguished the wearer. But, the appearance on the outside was much different that the spiritual reality within. The Lord declared: In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness, far from the Torah (Matthew 23:27-28). Even though we are sinners, we need to continually strive to have our outer behavior match up with our inner lives. Rabbi Sha'ul encouraged the believers in Philippi to discern what is best so that they could be pure and blameless for the day Christ (Philippians 1:10).

7. Woe to you, Torah-teachers and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. The seventh and final woe spoke to the ultimate hypocritical behavior of the Pharisees as a whole. This has always been a common practice in Jewish history. You can still see this today as you walk through Jerusalem. It is a respected custom for Jews to honor their religious ancestors. Many of the prophets who came to Isra’el were ultimately appreciated, even if their message wasn’t fully received at first. Jewish tradition says that Isaiah was sawed in half by King Manasseh (Tractate Yevamot 49b), Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern (Jer 38:1-13). Yet the generation that Christ lived in was denying that they had the same attitude as their ancestors. Indeed, they said: If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. So in true prophetic fashion, Messiah used their own words to connect them to the ungodly behavior of the past.1310 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started (Mattityahu 23:29-32)!

Yeshua Messiah then condemned the specific Jewish generation that rejected Him. At the culmination of His teaching about them, the maverick Rabbi held nothing back, saying: You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gei-Hinnom? Regardless of what any previous generation did, Jesus’ generation was guilty of the same behavior as their descendants. Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and Torah-teachers. Some of them you will kill, having the Lord’s followers executed on stakes as criminals. Clearly this is a reference to those Jewish religious leaders who handed over righteous believers to the Romans for an agonizing death on the cross. In addition, they would authorize Jewish authorities to flog them in your synagogues. That was an acceptable Torah practice as punishment for what they believed to be heretics or criminals. They will be so consumed with opposing the Truth that they will pursue believers from town to town (CJB). And so upon that specific generation will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation (Matthew 23:33-36).

Three days earlier, as Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah, He saw the City and wept over it (Luke 19:41). Now, as if it were the last time to receive Him, Christ cried out to the holy City: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. With such a horrific reception, we might expect Yeshua torain down burning sulfur as the LORD did on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24). On the contrary, He spoke tenderly in the first person: How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37a). Whether it was the Angel of the LORD who appeared to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), or the message of repentance to Micah (Micah 7:8-20), Messiah’s desire has always been to gather His people together for blessing. But He realized that His time of teaching was finished.

God’s compassion for Isra’el is so beautiful yet forceful, but [they] refused (Mattityahu 23:37b)! Jewish history is filled with many mysteries. Why have so many tragic events taken place? Or in the words of the Passover Guide (Hebrew: Haggadah), why is it that “in every generation there are those who rise up against us?” Christ’s answer is not meant to be to simplistic, but it does show us part of the answer from His perspective. It is not that ADONAI has abandoned Isra’el, but that Isra’el has far too often abandoned ADONAI. From YHVH’s point of view, it is not that He has judged her so severely, but that Isra’el has removed herself from the LORD’s protective grace in this sinful world.

Jesus continued to explain some of the immediate results of His rejection by the Sanhedrin (see Lg – The Great Sanhedrin) and the nation. In the strongest terms, He declared: Look, God is abandoning your house to you, leaving it desolate (Matthew 23:38 CJB). Ha’Shem was not announcing the destruction of their personal homes, but upon the great house of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple. This would have been more clearly understood in the original Hebrew, which He undoubtedly spoke to the Pharisees. The glorious Temple in Jerusalem was called the Holy House (Hebrew: Beit-Ha’Mikdash). In fact, this way of referring to the Temple was so engrained in their culture, it was often simply referred to as the House (Hebrew: Ha-Beit). And that House was indeed left desolate when the Romans armies destroyed the Second Temple (see Mt - The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple on Tisha B'Av in 70 AD). It is important to remember that this judgment was specific to that particular Jewish generation that rejected the Meshiach. They were the eyewitnesses to the life of Christ and who personally rejected His offer of national salvation.

It would be extremely sad if this section ended with the previous sentence, but there is a beautiful promise in the midst of that troubling time. The Messiah would be separated from His people by His impending death, but would be reunited with Him again. He ends by telling the crowd: For I tell you, you will not see Me again until you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of ADONAI"(Matthew 23:39). This famous phrase is part of the Hallel Psalms 113-118, specifically 118:26, which were chanted at several major Jewish holidays, including Passover (Hebrew: Pesach) and Booths (Hebrew: Sukkot). Our Lord made this statement just two days before the entire Jewish community would be chanting the Hallel at their Passover Seder meals! It would have been a great blessing to welcome Yeshua as King Messiah at Passover, but it would have to wait for a later generation (see my commentary on Revelation Ev – The Basis for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ).

Despite the national rejection at Pesach and Sukkot foreshadows Christ’s acceptance. Sukkot will be the only feast celebrated during the thousand-year messianic Kingdom (Zechariah 14:16-19). Today, both Jewish and Gentile believes can rejoice in the fact that Pesach perfectly prefigures Messiah’s death, and Sukkot is a sign of His return. It was no coincidence that Jesus died specifically on the fifteenth of Nisan, the very day of Passover! Thus, it seems that His return, as symbolized by Sukkot, is guaranteed.1311

In 1915 Pastor William Barton started to publish a series articles. Using the archaic language of an ancient storyteller, he wrote his parables under the pen name of Safed the Sage. And for the next fifteen years he shared the wisdom of Safed and his enduring spouse Keturah. It was a genre he enjoyed. By the early 1920s, Safed was said to have a following of at least three million. Turning an ordinary event into an illustration of a spiritual truth was always a keynote of Barton’s ministry.

Now it came to pass as I traveled that I came to a certain place where there was an Inn, and I entered and Lodged there. And in the Inn was one Bath Tub, and every Saturday night each Guest bathed themselves in it. And I watched them as they Furtively Hastened through the halls, clad in Bathrobes or in something less, and they were not Naked, yet did they hasten as if ashamed.

And in time it came about that I Obtained Entrance into the Bathroom, just as Another Man was Leaving it. And he wore a Ragged Bathrobe, and a Smile that said, Behold, I am clean.

And I entered, and the Water still was Running from the Tub, and Gurgling as it ran.

And I looked within the Tub, and saw there was a Ridge on the inside of it, which marked the Level of the Water at the time of the last Occupant had taken a bath. And I didn’t liked it.

Then I had a conversation with my soul, and my soul said to me, Doest thou well to be Wroth with the man who last Bathed? Behold the Ridge around the tub. Is it not evidence that he hath had a bath? Yea, doth it not show that he Needed one? Yea, furthermore, doth it not prove that the bath Wrought Well for him, and that by the Measure of whatever thou seest on the Sides of the tub, and what hath run down the pipe, the man is Cleaner than when he entered? Lovest thou not truth, and the evidence thereof? And is not Cleanliness a Virtue wherein thou shouldst Rejoice?

And I said, Yes, I rejoice in the Truth, but the Evidence gives me no Pleasure; and I Love Virtue, and Cleanliness is a virtue, yet I would rather he had given me other proof of his Cleanliness, or given me none at all.

Then I considered within myself, and I meditated on what had happened. And I realized that there are many who practice their virtues in such a way that they make virtue unlovely.

Yes, there are those who serve the Lord as if the devil were in them.1312

 

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