The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Understanding Jesus: Take Up Your Cross

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Sadism is a dysfunctional mindset in which a person takes delight in inflicting suffering on others.  We are all born with the necessary components to turn into vicious little sadists.  When someone wrongs you, and you secretly delight in seeing them suffer later on, you feel like your joy is justified because they wronged you first.  Among humans, it’s very common to pretend that sadism is not sadism as long as we’re calling it by the labels of revenge or justice.  But justice is supposed to be about keeping morals alive in your society so that order can be preserved.  The point of executing certain criminals is to protect society from their poisonous influence.  There are many ways of quickly executing a man so that he ceases to be a threat to others.  And yet in real life, human societies often refuse to use the most efficient methods of exterminating threats to social order.  Instead, we seem to take delight in coming up with ways to prolong the suffering of our victims as long as possible.  We also like to turn executions into public shows that everyone can watch.  In America, the absurdly complicated electric chair is just one big sadism fest.  Instead of instantly killing a man with a bullet to the brain, we film him being electrocuted to death and then we invite others to watch the whole thing live.  Or we go for lethal injection, in which we use toxic chemicals to make a body shutdown in stages.  We could just use one drug that works instantaneously, but instead we put together a ridiculously complicated cocktail of hard to get chemicals just to drag the whole show out longer. It’s sadistic, and sadism is sick.  Promoting sadism also has a very detrimental effect on human societies by encouraging citizens to celebrate and wallow in their basest instincts. 

Now sadism has been around from the beginning, and in the Bible, sadism abounds.  Ancient cultures like the Israelites, Philistines, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all promoted torture as a fabulous perk of warfare.  On ancient battlefields, it was no holds barred, and soldiers were encouraged to do very sick things to their opponents.  Back at home, sadism also abounded in the way that cultures dealt with crime.  Stoning was a very popular execution method which allowed passersby to get in on the fun of pelting someone with rocks and enjoy the sight of them slowly dying some agonizing death.  Gouging out eyes, chucking people into furnaces, watching them get devoured by wild animals—like modern people, the ancients couldn’t get their fill of torturing each other.  When it comes to sadism, the more you wallow in it, the more you start to crave it, and the more your society starts slipping into anarchy.

Now when the Romans stormed onto the scene between the Old and New Testaments, they introduced a new method of torturing the life out of someone: crucifixion.  Using a couple of beams of wood and some strategically placed metal spikes, the Romans had come up with a handy way to publicly display a man dying a very long and agonizing death.  By setting up crosses in public places, the Romans could force the general public to watch the show.

For the Romans, crucifixion was fabulous for two reasons.  Not only did it give them their sadistic fix, but it was also an effective means of terrorizing their subjects.  When you’re a power hungry Empire who is gobbling up new territories as fast as you can, rebellion is a constant threat.  No one likes being conquered.  No one likes having a bunch of bullies march into their homeland and say “Now you have to do what we say because we’re stronger than you.”  It’s only a matter of time until the people you’re stomping on try to fight back, and if they sense any weakness in your response, you’ll soon have an epic problem on your hands.  To protect themselves from perpetual chaos, the Romans decided that the best way to keep their subjects in line was to go ballistic on anyone who flagrantly defied Roman authority.  By setting up crosses with little plaques that announced what the perpetrators had done to bring such a horrific fate onto themselves, the Romans hoped to greatly reduce the number of folks who even dared to dream of rebelling against them.

JEWS & CROSSES

So then, from the Roman perspective, crucifixion was a strategic tool for maintaining order in their empire.  But from the perspective of a Jewish commoner, crosses were pure horror.  It’s one thing to be the fellow who is nailing people to crosses—it’s totally different to be the fellow getting crucified.  If you were an ethnic Jew living in New Testament Israel, then you were one of the trophies of the Roman Empire—someone who they had conquered and now viewed as inferior to them.  How much does a bully respect the kid who he beats up on the playground every day?  Conquering people and ripping their territory away from them doesn’t exactly help positive social relations form.  There was a lot of tension between Romans and Jews, with each group having very negative feelings towards the other.  The Romans naturally viewed the Jews as inferior people who were now potential threats to Roman agendas.  The Jews in turn viewed the Romans as inferior dogs who were trying to strip Israel of her Divine right to stomp on everyone else.

Now it’s important to realize that the motivations of the Jews were just as rotten as the motivations of the Romans.  The Jews didn’t want Rome to back off so that Israel could live in peace.  The Jews wanted Israel to take over the world.  They lusted for the day when every other nation on the planet would cower in the shadow of an Israel that was backed by supernatural power.  And of course Yahweh—the national God of Israel—was the One who would provide Israel with that power.

New Testament Jews interpreted certain Old Testament prophecies to mean that Yahweh had promised to one day send a Messiah who would rise to become the greatest monarch the world had ever seen.  That Messiah would reign from a throne in Israel, he would annihilate anyone who dared to oppose him, and he would bring peace to the whole world—that is if you define “peace” as everyone bowing down before ethnic Jews and not daring to cross them.  This was the Jewish dream, and it’s vital to understand this if we’re going to understand certain statements by Jesus.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23)

By the time Jesus said these words, He had Israel reeling in shock over His ability to perform incredible miracles.  By this time, He has demonstrated an ability to drive demons out of possessed people, cure all manner of illnesses, create enough food to feed thousands, control the weather, and walk on water.  The Man is inhuman.  People are getting miraculously healed just by touching the edge of His clothes.  Despite the enormous popularity of sorcerers and dark magic in Israel, no one has ever seen anyone like this Jesus guy.  Miracles were commonplace, and many folks were doing them throughout the Roman Empire.  The selling of magic spells and potions was everywhere, and a lot of demon worshiping psychos seemed to have the ability to perform legitimate miracles.  But no one was able to perform on the scale that Jesus could.  No one had His level of consistency.  Jesus was a miracle machine.   There didn’t seem to be any limit to His power.  The only way the Jews could make sense of this was if Jesus was channeling the power of the great Yahweh.  That’s what Jesus claimed to be doing, and if that was really the case, then why would Yahweh choose to perform such epic miracles through this single Jewish commoner?  There was only one logical answer.  Jesus must be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Now remember, the only kind of Messiah the Jews were looking for was a Rome smashing, world conquering, powerhouse.  In Jesus, they were getting even more than they had hoped for.  If Jesus was really channeling the power of Yahweh, then that meant He’d have the power to dish out not just healings, but also death on an epic scale.  After all, Yahweh was the God who had rained down the ten terrible plagues on ancient Egypt.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Jesus were to unleash similar horrors onto the Romans?  And why wouldn’t He?  The Jews were Yahweh’s favorite people, so why wouldn’t He delight in stomping on their enemies?  Yes, the longer Jewish commoners observed Jesus in action, the more they decided that He was going to lead their nation into an age of unprecedented glory and power.  So they rushed to follow Him, eager to bask in all of the blessings He was planning to pass out.  To join Team Jesus was to sign up for a glorious future of victory, honor, blessings, and power.  Jesus would put an end to all shame, misery, and suffering.  He had come to raise the Jews up and treat them like God’s gifts to the universe…or had He?

Then Jesus said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23)

What kind of insane talk is this?  Most of the folks who are amassing around Jesus are ethnic Jews who are steeped in national pride and lusting after revenge and power.  They expect Jesus to encourage them in viewing all Romans as scum, and they want to hear about His plans for turning Israel back into a sovereign nation.  But instead of talking about Israel’s glorious future—which is what these Jews want to hear—Jesus keeps turning the focus onto people’s personal relationships with Himself and Yahweh.  Who cares about something as irrelevant as spiritual maturity?  It’s war with Rome that matters.  And yet Jesus just won’t get His priorities right.  To make matters worse, He doesn’t gush over His fellow Jews the way a decent Messiah should.  Instead, Jesus is full of criticism for God’s favorite people—how annoying is that?  Not only is Jesus full of criticism, He’s also making some pretty obnoxious demands.

The Jews want a Messiah who will pamper them while He encourages them to kick others in the face.  They don’t want a Messiah who makes demands of them—especially not the kinds of demands Jesus is making.  What is this rot about the Messiah only accepting those who deny themselves and daily take up their crosses?  The only people who carry crosses are crucifixion victims.  The Romans liked to make men haul their own crosses to the execution sites.  Of course this just amplified how degraded the victims of crucifixion felt.  What kind of Messiah wants His followers to feel degraded?  Why would He tell a bunch of folks who haven’t been condemned to crucifixion to take up crosses every day?

UNDERSTANDING JESUS

When all we focus on is the horror of crucifixion, it’s easy to mistake Jesus as demanding that His followers embrace some kind of masochistic attitude.  Masochism is a dysfunctional mindset in which people intentionally seek out ways to harm themselves.  Like sadism, masochism is a condition that worsens the more it is encouraged.  If you really apply yourself, you can train yourself to crave suffering—so much so that you will feel incomplete and unsatisfied without it.  Real life masochists often act in self-degrading ways, and they submit to their humans abusers to inappropriate degrees. It is never correct to just lay in the dirt and let others treat you like a piece of refuse, but this is what real life masochists do.  Masochism is usually a way of coping with unprocessed trauma, it’s a serious psychological crisis, and it needs to be unlearned if a person is going to thrive the way God wants them to.

Masochists are hurting people who are behaving in ways which are guaranteed to worsen their troubles.  Masochists are not modeling what submission to God looks like.  And yet today, many Christians and non-Christians are confusing masochism with spiritual submission.  As soon as they hear the word submission, many people think of groveling like some wretch.  When they then read about Jesus saying that all of His followers have to lug around some infamous torture device—the Roman cross—they think this just proves that Jesus wants a masochistic type of submission from His followers.  After all, only an extreme masochist would be attracted to such a hideous torture device, and when Jesus tells people to take up a cross, He’s telling them to learn to like the idea of being tortured…isn’t He?

No, He isn’t, and for that we should all breathe a big sigh of relief.  But before we can do that, we need to understand why Jesus is talking about crosses at all, when they are such sick and twisted concepts.  If He’s not saying, “Learn to love being tortured,” then what is He saying?

Whenever you’re trying to understand something that one of your Creators says in the Bible, you have to start by realizing that no one is talking to you in the Bible.  Yahweh doesn’t say anything directly to you in Scriptures—instead, He’s always talking to other people.  The same goes for Jesus.  This is a critical point, because our Gods work with us all on an individual basis.  They don’t just lump us together and treat us as one organism.  What determines how Jesus is going to talk to you in your life today depends on many factors which don’t have anything to do with ancient peoples.  What is your current soul attitude towards Jesus?  Do you sincerely care about pleasing Him?  Do you hate Him?  Do you even know who He is?  What are Jesus’ current priorities for you?  What kinds of spiritual lessons is He currently working on teaching you?  The answers to these questions vary for each human, and as the answers change, so does God’s behavior towards us.  This is why it really doesn’t work for you to go eavesdropping on some conversation Jesus had with other people thousands of years ago and think, “It’s like He’s saying these things to me right now.”  This is what the Church teaches you to do with the Bible—she teaches you to crack it open and act like every word you read is being spoken from God to you.  The Church is a spiritual imbecile.

Now if you want to spend your life struggling with false convictions and clinging to promises that God never gave you, then go ahead and play the Church’s idiotic game of pretending that God is talking to you when He’s really talking to someone else.  But if you want to grow closer to God and stop misinterpreting Him, then you need to respect context.

Jesus was not talking to you when He said that anyone who wants to be His follower has to die to himself and pick up his cross every day.  When Jesus made that statement, He was talking to a bunch of glory hungry Jews who couldn’t care less about submitting to God.  In New Testament Israel, spiritual rebellion was extremely popular.  True submission to God was a lost concept.  The nation’s most influential spiritual leaders—the Sadducees and Pharisees—were a bunch of hardened rebels who inwardly hated Yahweh and who were trying to get everyone else to hate Him as well.  How do we know this?  Because Jesus says that’s how it was, and being God, Jesus knows what people’s true intentions are (see Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees).

So then, Jesus isn’t talking to a crowd of souls who sincerely care about pleasing God.  He’s talking to spiritual brats and rebellious punks.  He’s talking to people who see Him as the Guy who is going to usher Jews into a glorious new era of power, glory, and revenge.  No one is bowing to Jesus as an Authority Figure—instead, they’re lining up to use Him.  They like Him because He’s making their lives better.  They want His approval so that He’ll keep the miracles and free bread flowing.  Even Jesus’ twelve disciples are in this carnal mindset—they’re not following Jesus because they think His opinion is all that.  They’re just following Jesus around so that He’ll consider them His incrowd and later reward them with top seats in the new government that they think He’s going to establish.  How do we know that the disciples were this carnal?  Because it says so in the Gospel records.  We find the little glory hogs getting in fights with each other over who will be the greatest when Jesus launches His new kingdom.  In other words, they’re all competing with each other to be Jesus’ right hand man—the guy who gets the fabulous honor of sitting right next to the royal throne.  This was the highest honor a common man could hope to have in Bible times: to have the king invite him to sit beside the royal throne.  The conniving brothers James and John were greedily trying to reserve those seats for themselves in this scene:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to Him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want You to do us a favor.”

 “What is your request?” He asked.

They replied, “When You sit on Your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to You, one on Your right and the other on Your left.” (Mk. 10:35-37)

In this cultural context, this was an utterly obnoxious request.  You weren’t supposed to try and con a king into reserving such honors for you years in advance.  Jesus isn’t even on the throne yet, but that doesn’t stop the power hungry James and John from trying to trap Him into a verbal commitment.  This kind of behavior gives us an important insight into how Jesus’ closest disciples viewed Him.  He was their hookup to power and glory.  He was their ticket to fame and the top levels of society.  When you’re just some lowly fishermen, you don’t stand a chance at every having a glorious political career.  Jesus’ twelve disciples were all from the lower rungs of Jewish society—they were men who normally wouldn’t have any hope of holding top government positions.  But with Jesus, the impossible suddenly starts sounding possible (see Know Your Bible Lesson 60: Greedy Disciples).

At the time of the Gospels, the massive Roman Empire was staying organized by dividing itself up into states, each of which was ruled over by a prince who was given all kinds of perks.  This is what the disciples were hoping Jesus would do for them.  They imagined that when He established His vast kingdom, He would naturally need trusted men to serve as His regional princes.  The twelve disciples wanted to be first in line when it came time for Jesus to fill those prestigious posts.  So you see, the common view that the twelve were drawn to Jesus for spiritual reasons is malarkey.  They were drawn to Him because He was a powerhouse with incredible Divine hookups who seemed destined to take over the world.  As time went on and Jesus proved to be unintimidated by the current Jewish rulers, His incredible pluck and unbounded confidence only seemed to prove all the more that He was going to become the mighty monarch that everyone was hoping for.

So how is Jesus responding to the fact that He knows the Jews are only interested in Him as a political savior?  How is He responding to the fact that Israel as a nation is filled with spiritual rebellion?  Well, as we read through Jesus’ parables and sermons, we find Him constantly addressing the rebellion issue.  In His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus reams Jews out for their spiritual apathy, warning them that they are totally delusional to think Yahweh is pleased with them when their attitudes towards Him are so foul.  And since spiritual rebellion always comes down to a refusal to submit to God’s Authority, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the importance of submission.  He fires off metaphor after metaphor, and parable after parable which emphasize the importance of submitting to God.

Now when you’re talking to a crowd of folks who only see God as Someone who exists to serve them, you can’t just say “submit to God,” because no one knows what that even looks like.  So Jesus doesn’t just talk about submission, He personally acts it out.  Jesus gives the Jews—and all of us—an epic example of what real submission to God looks like.  Crucifixion plays a critical role in His submission example, and it is for this reason that He says His followers must take up their crosses.

The four Gospels are all covering the same period of history from four different perspectives.  So they overlap a lot, and whenever we’re trying to understand context, we should check out every version of a scene that is available to us.  Jesus’ famous “take up your cross” speech is found in three places: Matthew 16:21-26, Mark 8:31-37, and Luke 9:22-25.  All three scenes begin with Jesus announcing that crucifixion is in His personal future.  It’s important to realize that at this time, no one viewed Jesus as God.  Old Covenant theology—which was the theology of the Jews in Jesus’ time—did not leave any room for a second God.  So to the Jews, Jesus was just a normal human being who had been specially selected by Yahweh to function as Yahweh’s Messiah.  You have to try and see Jesus the way the Jews did—as just a human, nothing more—in order to appreciate how impressive His example of submission was.   Jesus told people that it was Yahweh’s will for Him to be rejected by the leaders in Israel, crucified, and then resurrected after three days.  Well, the resurrection bit went in one ear and out the other, because that was too bizarre to take seriously.  What the Jews fixated on was the part about Jesus dying.  Surely He couldn’t be serious about the notion that Yahweh would have His own Messiah executed.  And execution by crucifixion?  That was too horrifying to imagine.  Of course what really horrified the Jews was not the fact that Jesus would suffer hideously, but that His death would crush their hopes of seeing Israel vaulted into a world power.  How could Jesus hook them up with glory on earth if He was dead?  No, no, no, Jesus was missing the whole purpose of His mission.  Israel’s Messiah was supposed to be all about Israel.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You!”

But Jesus turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but only man’s.”  (Matt. 16:22-23)

Jesus is doing something radical here.  He knows how these people view Him.  He knows He has become a symbol of the fulfillment of Israel’s greatest hopes and dreams.  And since He’s walking around in a Jewish earthsuit, Jews would look at Him and assume that He was also brimming with national pride.  And yet Jesus, speaking as one Jew to another, says “I’m putting God before My country.  I’m treating His preferences as more important than My own.  I’m going to do what He wants, even if what He wants directly opposes what I want.”

In New Testament Israel, this depth of devotion to God was unheard of.  Fierce patriotism was as important to the ancient Jews as things like free speech and individual choice are to modern day Americans.  You simply didn’t put God above Israel.  Nothing was supposed to come before the homeland.  And yet here was Jesus, living in the same Rome oppressed nation as everyone else, and clearly possessing the power to bring about epic changes that would better His own life along with everyone else’s, and yet He was willing to shelve it all for the sake of pleasing a God with different priorities.  Who does that??  Who thinks like that??  Peter can’t accept it.  No one can accept it.

It’s one thing when God suddenly trashes your great plans without any warning.  It’s another thing when God tells you far in advance that He’s going to raise you up to greatness only to utterly crush you in the eyes of others.  Would we still sign on for some glorious career if we knew in advance that we’d end up as laughingstocks?  Would we agree to go on a mission if we knew we’d end up on someone’s torture rack?  What makes Jesus’ example of submission so jaw dropping is that He claims to have future knowledge of how bad things will get for Him.  He says that He has been informed well in advance that obeying Yahweh on earth isn’t going to result in any earthly rewards.  Instead, He knows that He’ll end up dying the worst death that anyone could imagine in His day.  And yet, in the face of knowing all of this, He says that He’s made His choice, and that pleasing Yahweh is more important to Him than anything else.

It is after Jesus directly links the foreknowledge of His death to His personal submission to Yahweh, and it is after He shoots down Peter for saying He’s got the wrong priorities that Jesus then goes on to say these words:

“If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.” (Matt. 16:24-27)

So what is Jesus saying here?  He’s demanding submission from His followers—the same kind of submission that He’s giving to Yahweh.  The kind of submission that pleases God is a soul attitude that says, “Since You are the Supreme Authority, what You want is more important than what I want, so please have Your way in my life.”  This kind of submission has nothing to do with a desire to be tortured or intentionally seeking out misery.  The kind of submission that pleases God comes down to deciding that we are going to pursue His approval above all else.

Now here’s a key question: is Jesus teaching people to submit without any hope of rewards?  You see, in masochistic submission, the pain is the reward.  It’s all about getting hurt and degraded.  Being abused is your final goal.  This is not what Jesus is telling people to go for.  Woven throughout Jesus’ parables on submission is a major theme of rewards.  Over and over we see the God Character heaping very generous rewards onto the heads of those who please Him. And the kinds of rewards being passed out are things which we humans can get into—things which were coveted prizes in the cultural context of New Testament Israel (see The Parable of the Talents).

It’s very important to see that Jesus is teaching people that their submission will be generously rewarded by Him and Yahweh.  It’s equally important to see that the very fact of attaining God’s approval is a great reward in itself.  As we mature in the faith, that last point becomes more important.  The closer you get to God, the more you will find that His approval of you becomes more and more valuable to you until it is the only treasure you really care about having.  But in New Testament Israel, Jesus is working with spiritual rebels, so we shouldn’t expect Him to talk about the shifts that happen in advanced stages of maturity.  Instead, He is teaching these people that they need to get serious about submitting to Him and Yahweh.  Why?  Jesus gives two reasons.  First, our Gods are generous Beings who love to bless, so serving Them well will result in us being rewarded by Them.

“For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.” (Matt. 16:27)

But because spiritual rebellion is always accompanied by a serious lack of reverence for God, reverence needs to be emphasized when you’re trying to drive rebels towards repentance.  Reverence is a fear-based respect which is a response to realizing that God controls our quality of life.  Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh warns that those who defy Him for too long will lose their life and die—and by that He means that they will be eternally damned.  Jesus is warning people to think about the eternal consequences of their choices when He says:

““If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26)

Let’s now rephrase this to hear it the way Jesus’ original audience would have heard it:

“If anyone wants to be accepted by Me, he must stop living for himself, fully submit to Me, and serve Me no matter what. For whoever wants to save his soul in the afterlife must be willing to lose his life here on earth, but whoever loses his life here on earth as a consequence of honoring Me will find eternal life for his soul. What will it benefit a man if he gains everything he wants in this world only to end up damned in eternity? Shouldn’t a man be willing to sacrifice anything to save his soul?”

APPLICATION FOR MODERN DAY CHRISTIANS

Once we understand that this speech is really about the importance of choosing the right spiritual priorities, and not about lugging around some ancient torture device, its modern day application becomes more clear.  Those of you who are already sincere in your submission to God are much further down the road than the folks Jesus was addressing in His “take up your cross” speech.  For you, this speech should be an encouraging reminder that you’re on the right track.

For the rest of you, contemplating Jesus’ example of submission would be a very beneficial exercise.  The modern Church is like ancient Israel in many ways.  Like the ancient Jews, many people today are viewing God like their Servant, not their Master.  They treat Him like an Authority, not the Authority.  They feel free to blow Him off whenever He convicts them to do something they don’t want to do.  In the world today, we can find many atheists who claim that they are totally justified in rejecting the existence of God because they don’t personally approve of Who He is.  Then we’ve got scores of Christians constantly telling God what to do and incessantly whining whenever He creates problems in their lives.  Both groups are operating under the delusion that God should exist to serve us, accommodate us, and make our lives better.  And yet this is not at all why God exists.  Rather than expect Him to revolve around us, we need to wake up to the fact that we’re the ones who should be revolving around Him.  Then need to get serious about submitting to Him while He is still willing to take us.

FURTHER READING:
Relating to God: Recognizing the Trap of Symbolic Pain
Learning from Yahweh: What It Means To Be Holy

Understanding Jesus: “Take My yoke upon you…”
Choosing the Right Priorities: How does God want us to treat our brothers?
Total Surrender to God: Understanding the Process
The Joy of Being Powerless in Your Relationship with God
Know Your Bible Lesson 67: Fully God & Only God

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