(Delivered Sunday, April 1, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, "Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." And they criticized her sharply. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her" (Mark 14:3-9).
This is a very important part of the story of our Savior's earthly ministry. It's so important, in fact, that three of the four gospel writers were led by the Holy Spirit to include it in their gospel accounts. It's a story that tells us of an extravagant expression of love and devotion for Jesus - so extravagant that it provoked the anger and scorn of those who witnessed it. But it's also the story of how Jesus responded to that expression of love and devotion. It tells us of how the Son of God gave a greater personal commendation to that single, seemingly 'extravagant' act of devotion, than to any other act of devotion performed in human history.
This story very much deserves our attention, then; because it teaches us about the sort of love and devotion Jesus deserves, and desires to receive, from you and me.
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This story describes the events that directly set into motion Jesus' betrayal into the hands of those who would then crucify Him. But the events in the passage before us also occurred shortly after another remarkable event - the raising of Jesus friend Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus had come to Bethany; to the home-town of His dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus had gotten sick, and had tragically died. But Jesus had raised Him from the dead before the watching eyes of many people (John 11:38-44). When the apostle John recorded his account of the story that's before us, he said; "Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him" (John 12:1-2).
Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus very much. They were His very dear friends; and He delighted to spend time with them whenever He was in Bethany. He had a very special place in His heart for the two sisters; but you couldn't find two people more different from one another than Mary and Martha.
Martha was the up-front 'person in charge' type. She loved to put on big dinners and events; and she knew how to get everyone involved in the work. She was probably the one who organized this special dinner in honor of Jesus. But Mary was the opposite of Martha. She tended to be quiet and sensitive. She often frustrated Martha; because while Martha was organizing people and trying to get things done, Mary wasn't to be found. Instead of helping with the work, Mary was often found near Jesus, listening to Him teach. For Mary, it was a 'heaven-on-earth' to just sit at the feet of Jesus. And though I suspect some people thought Mary was a little 'weird' sometimes; she loved Jesus with a very deep and profound love - and He loved her too.
John goes on to tell us that, during this dinner, "Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil" (John 12:3). And so, this woman in our passage this morning is none other than Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus - a woman who, according to the testimony of the Bible, was outstanding in her love and devotion to Jesus.
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In the eyes of others, Mary was "extravagant" in her devotion to Jesus. To be "extravagant" means to give more than is thought necessary - to give one's self over to the point of being extreme and wasteful; to exceed past what is considered to be the normal or acceptable bounds, and to go beyond what is thought to be reasonable. And in the eyes of those who saw her - in terms of how she expressed her love and devotion to Jesus - that's what Mary was. "Extravagant".
There are many people today who say that they love Jesus, and say that they're very devoted to Him; yet often, these same people are very 'reserved' in the way they express that professed love and devotion. They'd never let themselves become "extravagant" about it. They hold themselves back from "going to extremes" in their love for Jesus. In fact, many people - even people in church - say that you shouldn't let yourself go "over the top" about Jesus. "Don't get out of balance," they say. "If you love Jesus, that's wonderful; but keep it in control. Keep your 'religion' for Sundays, where it belongs. Don't go over-board about it. You don't need to be a 'fanatic' about it."
Now to be sure, there have been people who have gone to terrible extremes in some of the things they've done at church meetings or in worship services. But we're not talking about those outward, 'showy' forms of "extravagance" this morning. Instead, what we're talking about is a matter of the heart. We're talking about a genuine, "extreme" love for the One who first loved us, and a devotion to Him that comes from sincere gratitude for the salvation He has purchased us on His cross. We're talking about an expression of love that is appropriate to the magnitude of what He has done for us.
The story of how Mary anointed Jesus reminds us that, in reality, we can never be too extravagant in our love and devotion for the one who died or us. Not everyone will respond favorably to such extravagant devotion to Jesus; but the important thing isn't what other people think about it. The important question is, "How does Jesus respond to someone who is extravagant in their sincere love and devotion to Him?" Jesus' response to Mary teaches us how much such love pleases Him.
First, then, take a look at ...
I. THE EXTRAVAGANT DEVOTION OF MARY (v. 3).
The Bible tells us that Jesus was in the home of a man named Simon the Leper. What a wonderful Savior Jesus is! Even though He knew that He was just a few days away from His own crucifixion, He still took the time to keep a dinner appointment in the home of a leper. We know almost nothing about this man Simon - except that he was a leper and that Jesus came to His house. Personally, my guess is that Simon had a large home; and that he made it available for a dinner in Jesus honor, because Jesus had healed him of his leprosy. If you have anyone else over to your house for dinner, they might bring a dinner gift of some flowers, or a bag of some special coffee; but if you have Jesus over - who knows? He just might come over and heal you of leprosy!
Lots of people were present at this dinner for Jesus. The Bible tells us that "a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead" (John 12:9). Martha was running about serving food, like always; and there was lots of talking, lots of eating, and lots of activity. And then, as Mark tells us, "a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard."
The 'oil of spikenard' was an extract from a plant that grew mainly in India. It was a very fragrant, very aromatic substance; and it was highly valued as a rare and exquisite perfume. The spikenard that Mary brought in with her was contained in an elegant bottle made from a type of marble. It was probably hand-carved - a piece of artwork itself. This bottle was made with a long, thin neck that was easily snapped; and the only way that the bottle could be opened was by breaking its thin neck and pouring out the contents all at one time.
If we could take seriously the words of those who observed this event, then this flask of spikenard had a resale value of over three-hundred denarii. A denarii was roughly equivalent to one day's wage for a common laborer - making this alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard worth perhaps multiple tens-of-thousands of dollars. Such a flask of fragrant oil was ordinarily a gift that would be given to kings or dignitaries; and it would only be used on extremely special occasions and events - sort of like the opening a bottle of the oldest, most expensive wine you could possibly imagine.
But Mark tells us that Mary quietly slipped behind Jesus as He was reclined at the table, "broke open the flask and poured it on His head." She emptied the entire contents of this alabaster flask of oil of spikenard on Him; and, as John tells us, she even poured out some of it upon His feet.
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It was a shocking act - one that outraged those who saw it with its excessiveness. But think with me for a moment about the nature of this remarkable act of extravagant love and devotion.
First, notice that it was an act that was rooted in sincere faith. Jesus had said that He was going to die; and Mary took His words seriously. He even told the others, "She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial."
He had been telling His disciples again and again that He was going to Jerusalem to be handed over to to be crucified; and that three days later, He would rise from the dead. They didn't seem to either understand His words or believe what He said. But Mary did. She believed that He was going to die, and that His death meant her salvation; and so, she acted in a way that was appropriate to such sincere faith; she visibly placed her faith in His death by coming to Him and, in accordance with the custom of the day, anointing His body for burial.
It's very important to take notice of this. Mary's act of extravagant love and devotion wasn't praised by Jesus merely because she performed a "good deed". He did indeed praise it as a "good work"; but it was "good" because it was an expression of sincere faith. And her faith wasn't in her good deed; rather, her faith was in Jesus' sacrifice. Mary's act of extravagant love and devotion was an act that sprang from genuine faith in Jesus.
And second, notice that this was a visible act. Everyone saw it. If you had been there, you would have seen Mary making her way - perhaps a little bashfully - to Jesus with this very expensive, very precious flask of oil wrapped up tightly in her arms. Folks were probably whispering among themselves, "Isn't that Mary?" Family members and friends were probably putting their heads in their hands, and saying to one another, "Oh no ...! What is Mary up to?"
I believe you would have heard the expressions of surprise and bewilderment as people recognized the very expensive bottle that she cradled in her arms. I believe the room would have grown quiet as she raised the bottle in her hands. I believe you could have heard the startling "snap" of the bottle breaking from anywhere in the room; and you would have heard the gasps of shock from people as they heard the oil pour. You would have smelled the rich fragrance of the oil as it filled the entire room; and you would have sensed the entire room grow thick with tension as well.
This wasn't done by Mary in corner; you see. She didn't come to Jesus and do this in a private or secretive way. Things might have gone easier for her if she had. But instead, it was a very public, very visible act of extravagant love and devotion. She may have even known what sort of reaction it was going to evoke from the crowd; but this didn't matter to her. She still expressed her extravagant love for Jesus in a public way.
But even though it was a very visible act, we can see that, thirdly, it was also a very personal act. Mary was personally and actively involved in all of it. It was all her doing. Certainly, no one else would have ever approved of what she did or would have had aided her in the doing of it. She had to get the flask herself. She had to carry it to where Jesus was seated. She herself had to snap the bottle open, and irreversibly release its contents with her own hands. She had to personally pour the entire contents of it out upon Jesus' head. She even poured the oil out upon His feet, and stooped down to wipe His feet with her own hair. Mary was very deeply, very personally involved - in an active way - in this extravagant display of love and devotion. No one else acted in it for her; she did it all herself.
Fourth, we can't help but notice that it was a very sacrificial act. I have often wondered how it could be that such an expensive and costly bottle of oil could have come to be in Mary's possession. Such a thing would ordinarily have been only in the possession of the very wealthy; but the Bible doesn't present Mary and her family as wealthy people. Some have suggested that this precious item of luxury was something that Mary had already owned; but that doesn't seem likely. It's hard to imagine that such a family as this would own this one, single, outstandingly expensive item unless it were noted that they were notably wealthy.
So, how did Mary get it? I have a theory. When Mary heard that Jesus was going to die, and when she had come to put her faith in His sacrifice, she wanted to do what was customarily done to honor someone at their death. She wanted to show her faith in the sacrifice of Jesus by preparing His body for burial. But a common fragrant oil would never do. Instead - although it can't be proven to be so - I believe she drew upon all her life-savings and perhaps sold all that she had in her possession, and purchased this flask of precious oil herself. Jesus said, "She has done what she could" - and in saying that, He didn't mean it in a 'pathetic' sort of way; "Come on, you guys! Give the poor girl a break! Sure she's a little 'different'; but she's only trying to do the best she can ... poor kid!" He meant something much bolder than that. He meant that she did everything that was in her ability to do, while she had the opportunity to do it. As the Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Linski put it; "... When the one opportunity came to Mary, she not only was ready, saw and embraced it, but went to the limit of her ability in meeting that opportunity, in fact, would have done more if it had been possible" (The Interpretation of St. Mark's Gospel, p. 604).
I believe that when she poured out this fragrant oil on Jesus, she was pouring out everything that she was and had upon Him. She was, as it were, giving herself utterly and completely away to Him as an act of extravagant love and devotion, while she had the opportunity to do so.
And finally, we see that it was a decisive act. She was a quiet and shy woman by nature; but she came to were Jesus was - into the center of attention, as it were. And when she came to Him, it doesn't appear that she deliberated over the matter at all. She took this very expensive flask of fragrant oil - the flask that, once having been opened, had to be completely emptied of its extremely expensive contents - and snapped it's neck. Once that bottle was broken open, there was no turning back. She emptied the entire contents of the bottle - representing, as it did, all that she was and all that she had - upon Jesus' precious head.
This reminds me of the story that Jesus told about the poor widow who had put a mere "two mites" - two very small copper coins - into the temple treasury. Jesus saw it, and commended her highly for it. He told His disciples, "Assuredly, I tell you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood" (Mark 12:43-44). Jesus always takes special notice of anyone who gives everything for Him; and I believe that's what Mary did.
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Mary performed an outstanding act of extravagant love and devotion for Jesus. And may I suggest to you that Jesus is very much worthy of such love and devotion from us? He wants from us the sort of love and devotion Mary poured out on Him.
Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ? Do you trust His death on the cross as the payment for your sins? And are you grateful to Him because He saved you? Do you love Him because He first loved you? Are you devoted to Him as your Savior and Lord? If you are, then how do you show it? Obviously, we can't do what Mary did; but her action does give us the pattern of the sort of devotion He is worthy to receive from us.
Mary's love for Him was visible; but can people watch how you live and see that you love Jesus deeply and are very devoted to Him? Is your love for Him visible and public?
Mary's love for Him was personal; but is your devotion for Jesus is truly your own - not simply something you've inherited from your up-bringing? Do you love Him for what He has done for you personally?
Mary's love for Jesus was very sacrificial - involving all that she had to give; but does your love for Jesus cost you anything? Does it involve giving Him everything that you are and have? Do you sincerely do all that is in your power to do for Him?
Mary's devotion to Jesus was decisive - and meant that there was no turning back; but is your devotion to Jesus a decisive one, and have you been able to say, "I've decided to follow Jesus - and I'll never turn back, no matter what the cost"?
I hope that you can see from this that Mary's love and devotion for Jesus wasn't really "extravagant" at all. Her way of loving Jesus wasn't the least bit "odd". In fact, the way she loved Jesus is precisely the way He should be loved by all of us who have been saved by Him. Her love and devotion to Jesus is a model for the rest of us. As men and women for whom Jesus died to save, may God help us to love Jesus and be devoted to Him in an 'extravagant' way - like Mary.
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But a word of warning is in order. If we would be devoted to Jesus like Mary was, we need to recognize that not everyone will approve. People who saw what Mary had done were outraged by her actions; and this leads us, next, to consider ...
II. THE ANGER AND SCORN OF THE OBSERVERS (vv. 4-5).
Mark goes on to say, "But there were some who were indignant among themselves and said, 'Why was this fragrant oil wasted?" For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.' And they criticized her sharply" (vv. 4-5).
Notice, first, that what she did provoked their anger. They were "indignant among themselves"; that is, they were turning to each other and expressing their shock and anger to one another. "Can you believe what you just saw!!" "I don't think I've ever seen anything so foolish in all my life!!" "How can someone do something like that?!!" "Is Mary out of her mind?!!" "That has to be the stupidest, most idiotic thing I think I've ever seen!!" "Someone should have gotten up and taken that bottle out of her hand before she wasted it like that!!"
And if you are going to love Jesus in the way He deserves to be loved, you'd better be prepared to feel the anger of others - even the anger of people who claim to be Christians. They will think badly of you. They will call you names like "Wacko!" "Religious weirdo!" "Extremist!" "Nut-burger!" They'll say you've gone off the deep end; or that you're not being responsible. Some may try to talk you out of your love and devotion to Jesus. Others may even go so far as to try to physically stop you. Paul said it plainly; "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus said, "... Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19). I'm just trying to be honest with you: If you are going to love Jesus the way He deserves to be loved by you, you will feel the anger of those who don't love Him as they should.
Notice also that what she did was considered "wasteful". They said that the expensive bottle of spikenard could have been sold, and a great sum of money could have been given to the poor; but instead, it was wasted on being poured out on Jesus!
John, in his gospel, tells us that it was Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who was expressing this opinion the most. John writes, "But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, 'Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?' This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it" (John 12:4-7).
I believe that Judas quickly did the numbers in his head, and realized how much money had just been poured out upon Jesus; and that he reacted in an emotional outburst by saying, "What a waste!! That could have been sold for a year's wage!" - and then, when he saw Jesus looking right at him, quickly added - "Eh, I mean to help the poor, ... of course!" (That money, you could be sure, would never have even gotten to the poor! The fastest way to have "wasted" it would have been to give it to Judas!)
But all this just reminds us of what many people think of "extravagance" in our love and devotion to Jesus. They think that it's 'wasteful' whenever someone gives themselves over to Him in a sacrificial way. If we give ourselves over to Jesus as we should, there will be people who will say that we're throwing our lives away. They'll say that we're bringing a bunch of suffering upon ourselves for nothing. They'll even try to moralize to us; and say, "All this 'love for Jesus' - what good does it do? There's all that suffering and pain and hunger out in the world; and all you're worried about is 'loving Jesus'!! If you're so concerned about giving yourself to something, why don't you go out and end hunger! You'll do more feeding one hungry child than you'll ever do sitting around 'loving Jesus'!" Perhaps you've heard that kind of talk before.
Now, we certainly should work to care for those who are suffering around us. If someone has this world's good and sees a brother in need, and yet closes his hearts toward the needy brother, then the Bible asks us, "How does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). But that "love of God" must truly be in our hearts! The first priority, always, is to love Jesus!
The people of this world don't see things that way. Jesus is worthy of three-hundred denarii's worth of love and devotion from us; but some in the world would settle for selling Him for thirty pieces of silver if they could. And if we're going to love Jesus as we ought to, then we must be prepared to be told that we're being "wasteful", or that we're accomplishing "nothing".
Finally, notice that Mary was "criticized sharply" because of her extravagant love and devotion to Jesus. The word that Mark uses here is one that means they 'snorted' at her. It was a manifest expression of contempt for her. "Idiot!" "Fool!" "Weirdo!" "Fanatic!"
Think of it! If Mary had been a business woman, and had liquidated her assets and invested 300 denarii into a really great real-estate deal; or if she had been an ambitious, worldly-wise woman who poured herself into making a lot of money and raising her standard of living far above everyone else's; or if she had spent her life working hard and making a name for herself in the entertainment world or in politics - all things, by the way, that will only last for a little while and then are forever gone - then she would have been called all kinds of other names: "Successful!" "Brilliant!" "Shrewd!" "Savvy!" Instead however, she gave all that she was, and all that she had, to simply loving and adoring Jesus; and because the people of this world have no esteem for Jesus, she was sharply criticized for her sacrifice.
Even today, people who are sold-out to this world's values and priorities sharply criticize anyone who is extravagantly devoted to Jesus. The people of this world consider such followers of Jesus to be "out-of-touch"; or "against the main-stream"; or "losers". And yet, standing before the throne of Jesus Christ for a few seconds will be all it takes to will show who made the wisest investment of "extravagance". Until then; if we set ourselves to love Jesus in the way that He deserves to be loved by us, we must be prepared to be "criticized sharply" for it.
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That's the world's opinion of the sort of extravagant love and devotion Mary displayed to Jesus. But what was Jesus' opinion? It was done toward Him; and His opinion is really the only one that counts. How did He respond? The Bible tells us, next, of ...
III. THE FAVORABLE RESPONSE OF JESUS (vv. 6-9).
First, notice that Jesus was protective of Mary. He turned to those who criticized her and said, "Let her alone. Why do you trouble her?" (v. 6).
I think Jesus came to Mary's defense often. Do you remember how Martha once complained to Jesus about how Mary wasn't helping with the preparation of dinner? She complained that Mary was just sitting at His feet, listening to Him teach instead of helping. And Jesus said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41-42). I've always felt there was a bit of a stern warning wrapped up within those final words; "... which will not be taken away from her"!
Jesus was protective of Mary's devotion to Him at that time; and He was being protective of it in the story before us. I believe we can count on Jesus to always be protective of anyone who is truly loving Him and is devoted to Him in the way He deserves - even when that love and devotion seems "extravagant" in the eyes of others.
Second, notice that Jesus describes her actions as good. He said, "She has done a good work for Me" (v. 6).
Those who watched her thought she should have sold that expensive perfume and given the money to the poor. "That," they thought, "would have been a truly good work!" And yet, Jesus said, "You have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always" (v. 7).
Now, please understand; Jesus wasn't saying that it wasn't important to meet the needs of the poor when it's in our power to do so. Jesus Himself is the greatest lover of the poor and needy that there ever was! But here, He was saying that those who made this comment about Mary didn't have the right priorities. He is the Son of God, and He deserved the fullest extent of love and devotion possible from everyone in that room - just as Mary was expressing to Him right then. He was saying that if they were to fail to show Him the love and devotion He deserved, and turn their attention to some other "good work" instead, they were doing a "bad work" - no matter how "good" that supposed "good work" seemed.
Jesus praised her priorities before all those who were criticizing her; and He declared that what she did - not what they were saying she should have done - was the truly "good work".
Third, notice that Jesus understood her actions. He said, "She has done what she could" (v. 8). They hadn't done what they could at all. Instead , they were just sitting around criticizing what she did, and where themselves doing nothing! And yet, what was it that she did? Jesus told them; "She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial" (v. 8). They didn't understand her actions at all; but He understood her actions perfectly.
Those who saw what Mary did simply saw her actions as "extravagant"; "extreme"; "over-the-top". But Jesus saw her actions for what they truly were: an act of faith; an act that took seriously what He said He was going to do, and that demonstrated the reality of that faith through a visible, sacrificial, personal, decisive act of love and devotion.
And I believe we should be encouraged by all this. When we come to Jesus in genuine faith; and when we express that faith with the sort of love and devotion Jesus is worthy of - an extravagant love and devotion - Jesus knows about it. Others may misunderstand our actions, but Jesus doesn't. He knows and understands our hearts perfectly. Others may say we've done wrong and have misplaced priorities; but He calls such acts of extravagance love a "good work" - the right priority. Others may criticize such extravagant love for the Savior; but He is protective of it; and even goes so far as to praise it.
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And let's not fail to notice the marvelous commendation Jesus gives Mary at the end of all this. He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her" (v. 9).
I hope you appreciate the significance of that remarkable statement. Jesus was not only promising that His story would spread all around the world; but also that this woman's story would also accompany His! Everywhere the gospel was to be preached, Jesus promised that this woman's act of "extravagant" love and devotion to Him would also be preached. And look; here we are, talking about it even today!! Jesus made sure that this story of Mary's extravagant love and devotion for her precious Savior would be proclaimed everywhere; because it's the sort of love and devotion He wants from you and I. Truly, no human act has ever received a higher commendation than the one Mary received!
Obviously, we all have a long way to go. But here we see the sort of Jesus wants from us - a love and devotion that's rooted in sincere faith; a love and devotion that's visible, personal, sacrificial, and decisive; a love and devotion that isn't afraid of what the world thinks; a love that is "extravagant", and pleasing to the Savior; a love and devotion like Mary's.
May God help us to love the Savior as Mary did. May God help us to be "extravagant" in our love and devotion for Him. We can never be too extravagant in our love for the One who died for us!
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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