Shaming Jesus

One of the more difficult passages in the gospels is Jesus's exchange with the Syro-Phoenician woman. Specifically, many have puzzled over Jesus's calling the Gentiles "dogs." The story from Mark:
Mark 7.24-30
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
There is little doubt that Jesus privileges his mission to Israel. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah of Israel, the culmination of the story of Israel for the sake of the world. However, throughout Jesus's ministry we see him bring the Kingdom into the lives of Gentiles, a sign of Jesus's vision of the universal vocation of the Messiah.

What grates in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman isn't any of this but the racial epithet "dogs." Did Jesus consider the Gentiles "dogs"?

There have been a variety of responses to this query. Some point to Jesus's use of the diminutive for dogs--"little dogs" or "puppies." That softens things a bit. Which leads to perhaps the most common interpretation, that Jesus was being ironic or playful with the woman to test her and the assumptions of the onlooking disciples.

I'm okay with that interpretation, but I was struck the other day reading a different interpretation in Ched Myers's commentary on Mark Binding the Strong Man.

Myers first points to the social location of the woman. As a Gentile and a woman she's pretty far down on the power structure, the bottom really. Because of this the woman's insistence and pushing on Jesus is socially transgressive. She's not being polite or staying in her place. Even when Jesus tries to put her in her place. 

But here's the remarkable thing. This Gentile woman--this outcast of society--is the only person in human history who ever bested Jesus in an argument. Jesus, we know, was a darn good debater and wins every exchange recounted in the gospels. Except one. Jesus loses once.

This fact is highlighted when we note that the woman's request--healing for her daughter--is granted not on the basis of faith but on the basis of her argument. Jesus says, "For such a reply..."

What's going on with all this? Why does Mark show us Jesus losing an argument to a Gentile women when we've seen Jesus best the best theological minds in Israel (from the time he was twelve no less)?

Here's Myers's take: "This drama represents another example of status-equalization. Jesus allows himself to be "shamed" (becoming "least") in order to include this pagan woman in the new community of the kingdom." Myers sees in this a foreshadowing of the "shaming" of Israel when the Gentiles are brought into the Kingdom: "[S]o too Judaism will have to suffer the indignity of redefining its group boundaries (collective honor) in order to realize that gentiles are now welcomed as equals."

Although we could go too far with all this, I find this line of thinking very interesting. Jesus allows the Messiah to be shamed by the "least of these." And not because of their faith, but because of a forthright argument about fairness and equality. The Messiah is convinced and "shamed" by this argument and responds by opening up the Kingdom to all.

No doubt many readers right now are getting Christologically nervous. The idea of Jesus being "shamed" or losing an argument is just too much for their imaginations. For the anxious amongst us, I'm not going to force this interpretation upon you. Take a deep breath. We're in midrash mode here.

And my midrash is this.

If Jesus is willing to be shamed by an argument--not faith!--for simple fairness coming from the margins, is the church willing to undergo a similar shaming for the sake of expanding the Kingdom?

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42 thoughts on “Shaming Jesus”

  1. The way I read it, the Bible -- especially the OT -- is filled with stories about people who argued and debated directly or indirectly (through an angel or messenger) with God:  Adam, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Lot, and David come immediately to mind.  God can usually be persuaded by logic and reason.  Sometimes he even bends to physical force (see Jacob).

    Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why monotheism was able to establish itself in the first place.  A single god who is just like us, and reasonable to boot.

  2. Jesus changes his mind, indeed abandons a prejudice, at the protest of a woman who herself risks humiliation because she will do anything to save her suffering child -- if that isn't good news I don't know what is.  O the guff that has been preached on this text and its Matthean parallel!

  3. Glad to see Ched getting air time. This particular tale is one of my favorite biblical stories, because Jesus is wrong, admits it, and converts. Maybe Christians should read this story more often when engaging in "interfaith dialogue." Conversation always holds open the possibility of mutual conversion, and in this story the Son of Man, the Human One, converts. Irish archaeologist and biblical scholar Sean Freyne (in his book Jesus, a Jewish Galilean) also notes that this story is contextualized by Jesus’ Abrahamic pilgrimage to the borderlands to perhaps reconvene the outliers. And during this journey he’s forced to take seriously the prophets who claim that the Gentiles will one day be included.

  4. Sam, my friend, you are brilliant.  Thank you.  :-)

    I read this post earlier, and as I let the posited interpretation sink in, have been bothered by the idea of "shaming" on levels that I am not really smart enough to articulate or debate.  So I will simply ask one question that arises from my cognitive dissonance:

    Must we return to the paradigm of winners and losers, shame and honor, in our interpretation of Jesus and His teaching...extrapolated to our relationship with and in the Church / Body of Christ?

    A verse from one of my favorite U2 songs, "One," comes to mind:

    You say
    Love is a temple
    Love a higher law
    Love is a temple
    Love the higher law
    You ask me to enter
    But then you make me crawl
    And I can't be holding on
    To what you got
    When all you got is hurt

    A compassionate Father doesn't make his children beg or prove their worthiness.   A compassionate Father keeps watch for the prodigal's return, and welcomes with outstretched arms.

    I'm inclined to say, if the church needs to be argued down or shamed for its failures or offenses, then it's "game over" for me.  As in the coin-toss scene in "No Country for Old Men," I refuse to play the game.  Either kill me and get it over with, or I'm walking out.  Maybe I'm a coward and a quitter for taking this position with conflict in the church, but I can't see arguing or being a glutton for punishment.  Maybe I'm not that committed to any organization?  I would go to the mat for and with my family -- my husband and children -- and for a friend :-)  -- and for someone I see being treated unjustly.  Just not for an organization, or to argue for my "worthiness" within an organization.  If it has come to that, I'm walking out the door.  In fact, I'm probably "already gone" (in the words of an Eagles oldie.)

    I don't know what Jesus was doing in this interaction.  I have heard the theory that he was making a point with the woman and his disciples.  I have also heard the proposal that Jesus was learning himself, as he went along, the full extent of his mission.  Did he possess all knowledge from the time he was 12 years old?  Or was the full extent of his identity being revealed as he took each obedient step upon step?  It is an interesting theory.  I don't know how "orthodox" it is.

    Is shame and guilt a necessary element in church polity, as in society (civil laws, justice, etc.)?  If we keep looking at it that way, won't power and hierarchy always be an issue?  Or are we back to "good" power/authority and "evil" power/authority?


  5. Hi Susan,

    I believe you are correct.  Religion is just another way for people to be controlled and kept in order.  And maybe we really do need this?  Sorting that out seems to be the mission of the church and the state. Much better (for me at least) is to see the underlying "deep magic" to which you sometimes allude.  It is an answer to the mystery that is Grace and Love.  As well, we can live it every day, and most importantly, share it with others.  It's the only way I have yet found to "put skin" on God.

  6. This story still makes me uncomfortable.  I wish Jesus had just healed her right away, as he seemed to do with nearly everyone else.  It's hard for me to think that he was genuinely learning something in this encounter, but perhaps that is the case.  I still see it more as a playful dialogue, but I don't understand what the purpose of testing her was.  I guess in that case it really was to teach the disciples a lesson?  I think it is also really difficult to wrap my mind around how much gentiles were perceived as outsiders by Jews, so it's hard to grasp the significance of what occurred.

  7. Fantastic reading of this puzzling story.  Human reputations, as important as they are, apparently are not anywhere near as important as extending (or, better, recognizing God's extension of) God's kingdom to the "least of these."

    You know, that may be good news for the "up and in," as Dallas Willard calls us - those in positions of influence, authority, social status, and/or relative wealth - just as it is for the "down and out."


  8. That "dog" statement is pretty strange ... But that "Jesus allows himself to be 'shamed' in order to include this pagan woman" I don't think is so much a foreshadowing of the shaming of Israel, as a foreshadowing of the shaming of Jesus on the cross. If Meyers is right about the pagan woman shaming Jesus, not only does she shame him, but so does the political and religious establishment. Even the disciples abandon/shame/deny him. Why? So that we can experience the love and forgivness of the truly Human and truly God One. No matter how much we "shame" God, Jesus reveals that God continues to respond with love and forgiveness.

  9. Just yesterday I was reading about the "Historical Jesus" in the book 'The Evolution of God'.  In this book, Wright uses the earliest books (Mark, and the Q source) to give some sort of clue as to what Jesus looked like before the embellishment of the other gospel writers came into play.  Wright quotes this verse using it to show that, in the beginnings, Jesus might've have been a little more "Israelocentric" rather than an advocate of universal love.  The more I thought on this, the more it disturbed me.  I've read many commentaries on why Jesus might've called the gentile woman a "dog," but Wright had a equally good point of the universality of Jesus's message of love evolving over time.  That is until I read this post and am grateful that I did for the Jesus that shames himself in order to open up the kingdom to all (as he did on the cross) makes much more sense contextually that the Jesus who fights for his own sect.

  10. "an argument--not faith!--for simple fairness coming from the margins..."

    What comes to mind for me when I read this is the request from the lgbt communities for simple fairness -- equal protection under the law from discrimination, the right to get married, and so on. These are civil rights, human rights, yet so many churches are fighting against them. This is shameful in a different way than you meant when you said that Jesus was "willing to be shamed by an argument".

    How I wish that churches would instead be willing to be shamed about their wrong attitudes to the point of saying, "we are wrong, we should have treated you with respect and dignity instead of second class (or worse). We are sorry. We will work to ensure that every person is treated fairly and with love and respect." That would expand the Kingdom!

    Thanks for another fascinating post with lots to think about, and many intriguing comments to read!

  11. I read these the other day, and they resonated with me:

    1."One of the hardest decisions you'll ever face in this life is whether to walk away or try harder." 

    2.  "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got."

    I always "tried harder," both with church and FOO, to no avail. Now, "I'm already gone," too. And I do feel stronger. But God never answered or provided answers, and so sometimes it seems God has called me a dog as well. God knows enough of his self-proclaiming "special" ones have done so.

    The thing that rubs me wrong about Jesus calling that woman a dog, even in being argued down, is this: Was it not God Himself who made her a Gentile in the first place? What fault was it of the woman how she was born? 

  12. The picture above shows her as an attractive, innocent blonde, but as an exercise, think of an obese, angry, chainsmoking black woman from the projects whose daughter's baby daddy hasn't been around in a while. Alternatively, think of an illegal migrant farm worker, or anyone who might end up with their picture on People of Walmart. These are the kind of mental buttons this story would have pushed when it was first told, the kind of associations people would have made when they heard "Gentile woman."

    The pictures that illustrate these stories often serve to separate us from their real impact by sanitizing the characters. The story of the Good Samaritan suffers the same way, so much so that we now associate the word Samaritan with exceptional virtue. In fact, they were considered the scum of the earth at the time. When I retell that story, I describe it as a CEO, a priest and a judge (or similar) passing by while a meth dealer (or similar) stops to help.

  13. Wow, Patricia -- you sound just like me.  I am no Bible scholar, but where does it say anywhere in this story that Jesus is speaking about Gentiles, or even people?  I never remember anyone ever suggesting that a dog is anything other than a dog -- like Freud's cigars.  But then, it's been a long time, and my mind wanders, (kudos to Tommy Lee Jones), and I do not know what FOO's are, either.

  14. I have often wondered at this passage. Especially since I owe my bleeding heart liberal leanings toward my upbringing in a Mchristocentric church. It unnerved me for a while---the sinless Saviour was wrong about something? He exhibited prejudice??? The playful ironic interpretation never rang true either. It seemed to much as a PR move to clear Jesus. Holy Moses! What if Jesus was wrong. No offense to my male/masculine peers here, but it seems the male ego gets in the way of metanoia. If nothing else, this humbling, this willingness as a guy, to be wrong is almost conclusive proof to me that He was the Son of God.

    I say this all with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The female/feminine ego is just as big, but just in another way. Dr. Beck, I lurk here all the time but never comment. Tonight, though, I just have to thank you for the mid rash. It has made my night. And provided a strange hope. Is it possible that God cares about our "unbiblical requests"? That we are actually in a relationship in which there is an honest to goodness give and take? Can the ecclesia follow suit? I hope so with all my heart...

  15. Joseph Prince in a sermon said that the woman by calling Jesus "son of David" was deceptively presenting herself as under the covenant, that is, a Jew.  If Jesus had healed her then, she would have gone the rest of her life thinking that salvation is for Jews only and that she only got help via deception.  So Jesus plays this game with her.  I like to think that she knew that he was onto her from the start and that it wasn't an insult but a challenge for her to come clean.

  16. Patricia, may I say first that I am sorry for the hurt you have suffered?  So very sorry.

    This morning, I actually awoke thinking about this post and the implications.  Re-imagining the Syro-Phoenician woman's dialogue with Jesus, as if he were shouting at a pesky stray mutt, or a beggar-child:

    "Please, please don't make me go.  I'll be good, I'll be good."

    Try harder.
    It must be my fault.
    I'm bad.

    That's a good recipe for becoming a victim of abuse. 

    No, thanks.  Stay strong, Patricia.  I know that you are God's beloved child, no less loved than any other.  I don't believe that God has ever turned his back on you.  Answers are sometimes slow in coming, and often aren't the answers that we expected, in my experiences.  It's no one else's business what is between you and God.

    This passage has bothered me for a long time, too.  It seems totally incongruent with everything else that I know of Jesus, from the Bible *and* from my heart, by the Spirit.  The way I see it, I have no problem letting it go and sticking to what I *know* of Jesus.  Remember, we don't worship the Bible.  :-)  We worship Christ.  He is more than words on a page.  I see Him in you, and Sam, and many others, who show me a different image than the one of "ugly Jesus" in this passage.  I'll trust that "knowing" before I believe that Jesus would ever be cruel or hateful.  ~Peace~

  17. Last night I heard a young preacher use this scripture to prove that Jesus was not always a nice guy, saying that Jesus called this woman a dog to her face. I want so bad to send him this link. I won't though. But I love the timing of this post. Perfect.

  18. When I read this, I think of the characterization of God (Chesterton?) as an adult playing hide-and-seek with us. He willing "loses" for the sake of engaging the child.

  19. Thanks, Susan. What has been a stunning revelation to me has been finding out how many people out there are Just. Like. Me. Their experiences mirror my own. And the rest ... often don't get it because they have no frame of reference, spiritually bypass, or are toxic themselves.

  20. Per the first comment, from Sam, the way I see it is that God often plays "devil's advocate" in dialogue to mankind, allowing us to argue with Him from His position and character: for mercy, for help, for love.  Abraham and Moses both come to mind as bartering with God for more compassion towards the Israelites.  He always wants mankind to do His work in the world, and this is one way he gives us opportunities.

    Jesus probably voiced a common viewpoint of the day, calling Gentiles "dogs," which set up this woman to give her excellent reply for all to hear - and be commended by Jesus for it.

  21. The mystery to me remains this:  How is it that some of us become so tuned in to the suffering of others, are exquisitely sensitive and empathetic, while at the same time there are people such as Charles Manson, a "victim" from early childhood of the social services and penal system, who go off in the other direction?  These are the ones I see daily through the eyes of my spouse who stills labors in that vineyard.  They have abandoned all hope, as we have abandoned them.

    Somewhere along the road someone or something must intervene.  And unfortunately, that sometimes actually makes matters worse.  Looking back it now seems obvious, but at the time it was hell.  It is not the pleasure, but rather the pain which led to present wisdom.  And the ability to recognize others who are Just. Like. Me.


  22. Realistically, any time we witness Jesus arguing publicly with anyone, we immediately need to assume a shame/honor dynamic. How interesting that years and years of interpretation have tried to wrest this out of its necessary contextual constraints and plop it down firmly in the dynamics of western modern culture. Compare this to someone like Tim Keller's recent exposition in "King's Cross" and revel in the interpretive dissonance.

  23. Hi Sam, I don't know have any real answers. It has helped me to find descriptions and learn the terminology that accurately represent what I've lived through (link below). Finding others, like you and Susan, who get it and who reached out to me as a lifeline helped me. And when I find someone else who is drowning in the same, the instinct is to try to reach out and help, also, if possible.

  24. I think also of John 4 and the woman at the well. Jesus tells her that she worships what she does not know who she worships. She corrects Jesus saying that her people do know about Messiah. It comes across nicely in a dramatic reading. Have someone read the woman's response with a sassy tone. (Neck wag) "Oh, we know about Messiah!"

  25. Sorry about my syntax,but I getting accustomed to writing on a tablet. Jesus challenges the woman's knowledge of God, and it is revealed that she does know something. In John, we have a Jesus who actually tells her that he is the Messiah. These outsiders and others reveal something about God, and it keeps happening today.

  26. I do not really see it as Christ being "shamed" into acting as she wished. I would tend to look at this in much the same way as his response at the wedding in turning water into wine as he replied to Mary "it is not yet my time". Then as now his "acting" served as a preamble to what God was building up to. Another aspect to this was that it is about faith well seasoned with humility. He saw in her argument not a rationality that won the day but a certainty of belief that he could do what she was asking him to. Additionally the whole "racial" construct here would seem to be a reading into the passage a modern anthropomorphism which is characterized by angst and victimhood entitlement(s). As for losing the argument, well he lost a wrestling match at least once that we know of and given that many Christians are prone to wrestling with Him I suspect he has yielded a time or two more. In fact, I hold that he wants us to be "pushy" in the pursuit of kingdom and righteousness.

  27. Dear Patricia and Sam,

    "Finding others...who reached out" -- You two have been such a blessing, in your willingness to lay open your own "wounds" in order to stand with others who suffered/are suffering, to listen and understand, and offer healing words of hope.  Each of us has had his/her own cross(es) to bear in this life, and is finding The Way forward.

    I try to look at the painful aspects of life as training; not so much for my own "self-improvement project" but for responding with loving compassion to another lost and hurting soul along the journey.  Good News, anyone?

    It is hard to make sense of the mad, bad, decaying world to which we've been exposed.  Harder yet to forgive those who have harmed us or seriously let us down.  Forgiveness expressed as healing grace, deliverance from fear, shame, guilt, and liberation to LIVE with peace, love, and joy is extended to me each and every time I interact with one of you.  I'm feeling that this forgiveness is like money in the bank.  Jubilee :-)

    Blessings of peace and gratitude,

  28. Isn't an equally valid interpretation that Jesus was rewarding a gentile for accepting her place as a lesser being than the people of Isreal?

    Note: I'm not saying she actually was a lesser being.  But, I don't see anything in this to suggest that Jesus abandoning an old bigotry, showing said bigotry to be a bad thing would be better interpretations than Jesus being nicer about reinforcing bigotry.

    When someone says that Jesus was shamed, was abandoning a bigotry, was showing others that a bigotry was bad, etc... you're adding a lot to the text where a simpler interpretation just doesn't fit into an image of a perfectly moral being.

  29. It seems to me to be an over-generous interpretation of the story to say that Jesus abandoned his prejudice.

    In this story, Jesus never agrees to the equality of gentiles, or the equality of women, or the equality of gentile women with Jewish men.  Jesus called the woman a dog.  And she made her point by agreeing with him, not saying that she deserved equality or fairness, but merely begging for crumbs.It is a very, very common thing for someone who is oppressed to have to placate and pretend to agree with the oppressor in order to gain some small benefit.  And that's what we see happen here.Once she had admitted to and agreed with his understanding of her place in the world, a dog who can at most expect crumbs, Jesus gave her what she begged for.  It does him no harm to show a bit of kindness to a lesser person who acknowledges their subordinate nature.  But there is no evidence that his behavior patterns changed in the long-term to reflect a change in belief and a letting-go of prejudice.  Jesus did not then reach out to other Gentiles in his lifetime.  He did not, in his lifetime, work to send apostles to Gentile communities.  This incident was an aberration in his behavior, a single time when, on a whim, he decided to indulge an inferior person who amused him with her clever response but did not challenge his privileged world-view.  The woman may have bested Jesus in this argument, in the sense that she convinced him to give her what she desperately needed.  But she did not best him by arguing for her equality.  And she did not best him by convincing him that she was equal.  She did not best him by arguing for fairness.  She did not convince him to treat gentile women, as a group, fairly.  Saying that a dog may claim crumbs that fall from the table is a very, very different thing from saying that a dog is equal to a human child eating at the table.  She used the time-honored technique of the oppressed and enslaved of flattering their oppressor in order to gain favor.  ***And Jesus's initial rejection of her request is not merely prejudiced.  It is cruel.  And evil.  This is a woman who is desperate.  Her child is severely ill, in a way that was not understood at that time.  She believed her child to be not just physically ill, but possessed by evil spirits.  Any interpretation of the story that suggests that Jesus was using this woman to illustrate a point requires recognizing that he considered making a point to be more important than the welfare of a desperately ill child.  It requires recognizing that Jesus considered making a point more important than basic kindness and good manners to a woman asking a favor.  Scoring points in a debate can never be more important than kindness and caring for actual human beings.  ***Imagine being desperate to find a cure for your sick child.  You muster your courage, and approach a doctor well-known for being able to cure conditions that others find impossible to treat.And that doctor calls you a dog, who has no right to take treatment that might be given to real people.  That doctor is, at best, a prejudiced asshole.  At worst, he's advocating a sort of low-level genocide, providing medical care to worthy people but leaving those of a lesser race to die.  

    And in situations of great oppression, there are always many stories of oppressors showing occasional acts of small kindness to this or that oppressed individual.  And then using those occasional small acts as a way to tell themselves and others that they aren't really oppressors, because there is this or that lone individual among the many they oppress to whom they'll give an occasional and small bit of kindness while still treating them badly in the larger picture.  

  30.  At the risk of being the oddball, my view is Jesus was using sarcasm to shame His disciples. He knew the societal racism and He knew His disciples well.

      They considered Gentiles dogs and Jesus used the softer term, but, still used the term to show His disciples how wrong that thought was because He then emphasizes He has not seen such faith "in all of Israel". If this lady had stronger faith in Him than Peter and she did, what did that tell Peter about Gentiles being dogs NOW?

      Notice also the emotional excitement of The Lord there is almost unmatched in the Gospel narratives.

  31. There is noting loving about affirming and encouraging sinful behavior.

  32. Amen, and amen! Where to I find the "button" to follow your blog regularly? I came here from RHE's Sunday Superlatives.

  33. Jesus, the unblemished communicator, my role model in communication as well as all communicators in the whole world along history and till eternity... 
    A dialogue is the ultimately effective communication form...where the main purpose is common understanding...the word "shamed" or lost a dialogue DOESN'T really exist. since a dialogue is not about winning over one another... it is winning ONE ANOTHER.. and this is what topically happened in this dialogue!!! Let us first take a deep look and meditate in this scene, and since the bible is not literal ... "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthian 3:6), I would like to look at the same scene in Mathew (15: 21-28) we can easily draw the scene ....first we look at the whole picture ...Jesus was already in the area of Gentiles.." Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon" (Mathew 15:20) so He left the Jews and went to the Gentiles..... the scene began with a screaming women, she was shouting and begging for a long time, chasing Jesus desperately... The disciples seem upset "So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Mathew 15:23) ... it wasn't out of mercy, they asked Jesus to SEND HER AWAY!!!... I can see their anger. I can also read their minds!!! they think "who is this strange women???? she is just a Gentile dog!!!! as Jews use to call any non Jews. Jesus knows hearts and minds!!! He wanted to speak their thoughts to teach them the lesson of their lives !!!! Let's take a look to the dialogue itself... it is good to know that words accounts 7-11% of the communication!!! so I bet Jesus non verbal communication wasn't as harsh as His words look like..accordingly the women stayed and continued the dialogue... In the whole bible; Jesus appraises only two people for their STRONG FAITH!!! it was the Centurion, and this faithful Canaanite woman!!!!!She is the one the Jesus told her“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted" (Mathew 15:28)My prayer is that God grant us this GREAT FAITH .. the Canaanite Woman's faith...

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