So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)So the last shall be first.—This, then, is the great lesson of the parable, and it answers at once the question whether we are to see in it the doctrine of an absolute equality in the blessedness of the life to come. There also there will be some first, some last, but the difference of degree will depend, not on the duration of service, nor even on the amount of work done, but on the temper and character of the worker. Looking to the incident which gave rise to the parable, we can scarcely help tracing a latent reference to the “young ruler” whom the disciples had hastily condemned, but in whom the Lord, who “loved” him (Mark 10:21), saw the possibility of a form of holiness higher than that which they were then displaying, if only he could overcome the temptation which kept him back when first called to work in his Master’s vineyard in his Master’s way. His judgment was even then reversing theirs.
For many be called, but few chosen.—The warning is repeated after the parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:14), and as it stands there in closer relation with the context, that will be the fitting place for dwelling on it. The better MSS., indeed, omit it here. If we accept it as the true reading, it adds something to the warning of the previous clause. The disciples had been summoned to work in the vineyard. The indulgence of the selfish, murmuring temper might hinder their “election” even to that work. Of one of the disciples, whose state may have been specially present to our Lord’s mind, this was, we know, only too fatally true. Judas had been “called,” but would not be among the “chosen” either for the higher work or for its ultimate reward-Interpreting the parable as we have been led to interpret it, we cannot for a moment imagine that its drift was to teach the disciples that they would forfeit their place in the kingdom. A wider interpretation is, of course, possible, and has been often applied, in which the first-called labourers answer to the Jews, and those who came afterwards to converts in the successive stages of the conversion of the Gentiles. But this, though perhaps legitimate enough as an application of the parable, is clearly secondary and subordinate, and must not be allowed to obscure its primary intention.Matthew 20:16. So the last shall be first, and the first last — The Gentiles last called, and last in advantages and privileges, not having been favoured in that respect as the Jews were, and despised and looked down upon with contempt by the Jews; shall be first — Shall more readily, and in far greater numbers, embrace the gospel than the Jews, and shall far exceed them in knowledge and wisdom, holiness and usefulness, and make abundantly greater progress than they in true religion. And many, whether Jews or Gentiles, that were called long after others, and even late in life, yet being more zealous and diligent in the use of means, and in the exercise of every grace and virtue, and the employment of every talent intrusted with them, shall, in every branch of godliness and righteousness, far excel others who set out in the ways of God long before them. See note on Matthew 19:30. For many be called — Even all who hear the gospel, whether Jews or Gentiles; but few chosen — Only those who obey it; and even many who do for a time obey it, and that in reality, and are therefore, οι κλητοι, the called of Jesus Christ, Romans 1:6; yet not persevering to give diligence to make their calling and election sure, by adding to their faith every grace, as directed by St. Peter, 2d Epist. Matthew 1:5-10, are not finally chosen to everlasting life, but excluded the marriage-feast for want of a wedding-garment: for without holiness no man shall see the Lord, and only he that is faithful unto death shall receive the crown of life. It seems necessary, before we dismiss this parable, to caution the reader against concluding, from any part of its contents, that the rewards to be conferred after death, or at the day of judgment, will be equal in all that receive them. For this would be to make the parable contradict a vast variety of the plainest passages of the New Testament, which assure us, in the most positive manner, that when our Lord cometh, his reward is with him, to give unto every man according as his work shall be, that is, in proportion to the degree of the inward and outward holiness which he had attained in the days of his flesh, and according to the efforts he had made and the diligence he had used to glorify God, and serve his generation in obedience to the divine will: and according to the sufferings which he had patiently endured. For, as one star differeth from another star in glory, so shall it be with the saints at the resurrection of the dead.
Many be called, but few chosen - The meaning of this, in this connection, I take to be simply this: "Many are called into my kingdom; they come and labor as I command them; many of them are comparatively unknown and obscure; yet they are real Christians, and shall all receive the proper reward. A few I have chosen for higher stations in the church. I have endowed them with apostolic gifts or with superior talents, and suited them for wider usefulness. They may not be as long in the vineyard as others; their race may be sooner run; but I have chosen to honor them in this manner, and I have a right to do it. I injure no one, and have a right to do what I will with my own." Thus explained, this parable has no reference to the call of the Gentiles, nor to the call of aged sinners, nor to the call of sinners out of the church at all. It is simply designed to teach that in the church, among the multitudes who will be saved, Christ makes a difference. He makes some more useful than others, without regard to the time which they serve, and he will reward them accordingly. The parable teaches one truth, and but one; and where Jesus has explained it, we have no right to add to it, and say that it teaches anything else. It adds to the reason for this interpretation, that Christ was conversing about the rewards that should be given to his followers, and not about the numbers that should be called, or about the doctrine of election. See Matthew 19:27-29.
for many be called, but few chosen—This is another of our Lord's terse and pregnant sayings, more than once uttered in different connections. (See Mt 19:30; 22:14). The "calling" of which the New Testament almost invariably speaks is what divines call effectual calling, carrying with it a supernatural operation on the will to secure its consent. But that cannot be the meaning of it here; the "called" being emphatically distinguished from the "chosen." It can only mean here the "invited." And so the sense is, Many receive the invitations of the Gospel whom God has never "chosen to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth" (2Th 2:13). But what, it may be asked, has this to do with the subject of our parable? Probably this—to teach us that men who have wrought in Christ's service all their days may, by the spirit which they manifest at the last, make it too evident that, as between God and their own souls, they never were chosen workmen at all.Acts 20:16, So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. Some here by first understand such as are of greatest repute and estimation in the world, or who have the highest opinion of themselves. By last they understand persons who are of meaner note and reckoning in the world, and have lowest opinion of themselves. The former shall be last as to the love and favour of God, and any reward from him; and the other shall be first. Others by the first understand the Jews, who were the first people God had in the world, and more dignified than any other by privileges: by the last, the Gentiles, who came last into the church of God. This seems to be directly intended by our Saviour, who perfectly knew the pride and invidious temper of the Jews, who valued themselves upon their prerogative, that they were the church of God, when the world lay in wickedness; and were apt to resent as an indignity that the Gentiles should be called into the church, and be made equally partakers of spiritual privileges with them. Having now fixed the scope of the parable, the interpretation is easy.
The kingdom of heaven, that is, the sovereign dispensation of God in calling nations or persons to partake of spiritual benefits in his church, and consequently of eternal blessedness, is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. The householder is God the Father, compared by Christ to a husbandman, with respect to the culture of vines, John 15:1; to one that hath a vineyard, Isaiah 5:1,2 &c. The vineyard is the church. The work is that which concerns eternal salvation, both of our own salvation, and of others that are committed to our charge, or that are within the compass of our activity to do them spiritual good. The labourers are, eminently, persons in office, and, generally, all that are called by the gospel. The hiring of them imports the gracious promise of the reward published in the gospel to those who will work. The penny is the reward, comprehensive of the spiritual privileges that persons in the church are made partakers of. Men standing idle in the marketplace, signifies their neglect of the great and proper work for which they came into the world, to glorify God and save their souls. His going out at several times, and calling in some to the vineyard at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, implies the calling of the Jews in the early age of the world, and his sending the prophets in sundry times, when they were degenerated, to return to his service. The calling some at the eleventh hour particularly respects the bringing in the Gentiles by preaching the gospel, who before were without the knowledge of God and the way to life. The even is the time of accounts and recompence. The murmuring of some that they received no more than those that came later into the vineyard, primarily and immediately signifies the envy and vexation of the Jews, that the Gentiles should be equal partakers of the grace of God with themselves, who for so many ages had been his peculiar people. The householder’s vindicating himself is from two considerations, wherein it appears that his liberality to some is perfectly consistent with his justice to all.
1. That he agreed with them for a penny, which they received: the Jews enjoyed those external privileges of God’s covenant, which they so much valued themselves for, till they cut themselves off by their obstinate rejecting his grace.
2. That he might do what he pleased with his own. He was master of his own favours, and it was malignity to tax his bounty to others, which was nothing prejudicial to what was due by agreement to them. Our Saviour concludes the parable, that the last shall be first; the Gentiles shall be made partakers of the gospel, with the blessed privileges attending it: and the first shall be last; that is, the Jews should deprived of those privileges.
And analogically in every age, some who are first, in presumption of their own merit, in profession, and reputation, but not in real holiness, shall be last in God’s account; and those who were sincere and diligent in the Christian calling, though not valued by the world, shall be preferred before them.
For many be called, but few chosen. This is the reason of what is said before. Many are called by the external preaching of the word into the visible communion of the church; this is the evident meaning by the reading of the parable, wherein it is said persons were called at several hours, comprehending the ministry of the prophets and the apostles, and all the succession of preachers in every age.
And few chosen; that is, by the free and unchangeable decree of God ordained to eternal life, and to partake of saving grace in order to the obtaining it. This is the main scope of the parable. Matthew 19:30 and which is clearly illustrated by this parable, as it may be applied to Jews or Gentiles, or to nominal and real Christians:
for many be called; externally, under the ministration of the Gospel, as the Jews in general were, by Christ and his apostles; but
few chosen; in Christ from all eternity, both to grace and glory; and in consequence, and as an evidence of it, but few among the Jews; as also in the Gentile world, comparatively speaking: and even but a few of those that are outwardly called, are inwardly and effectually called by the powerful grace of God, out of darkness into marvellous light, into the grace and liberty of the Gospel, into communion with Christ, and to the obtaining his kingdom and glory, according to the eternal purpose of God. It is a saying of R. Simeon ben Jochai (d).
"I have seen the children of the world to come (elsewhere (e) it is, of the chamber), , "and they are few".''
Though he vainly thought, that if those few were but two, they were himself and his son.So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)Matthew 20:16. The teaching of the parable: So,—just, as in the case here supposed, those who were the last to be sent into the vineyard received the same amount of wages as the first; so in the Messiah’s kingdom, the last will be on the same footing as the first, and the first as the last, without a longer period of service giving an advantage, or a shorter putting to a disadvantage. Comp. Matthew 19:30.
ἔσονται] that is, practically, as far as the reward they are to receive is concerned. The first will be last, inasmuch as the former receive no more than the latter (in answer to de Wette’s objection, as though, from the expression here used, we would require to suppose that they will receive less than a denarius). There is nothing whatever in the text about the exclusion of the πρῶτοι from the kingdom, and the admission of the ἔσχατοι (Krehl in the Sächs. Stud. 1843); and as little to favour the view, adopted by Steffensen: those who esteem themselves last shall be first, and those who esteem themselves first shall be last, for the labourers in the parable were in reality ἔσχατοι and πρῶτοι. The proposition: “that, in dispensing the blessings of the kingdom of heaven, God takes no account of human merit, but that all is the result of His own free grace” (Rupprecht, Bleek, Holtzmann, Keim), does not constitute the leading thought set forth in the parable, though, no doubt, it may be supposed to underlie it.
πολλοὶ γὰρ, κ.τ.λ.] Confirmation of what has just been said about the ἔσχατοι being put upon an equality with the πρῶτοι: “for although many are called to share in the future recompense for services rendered to the Messiah’s kingdom, yet those chosen to receive rewards of a pre-eminent and peculiarly distinguished character in that kingdom are but few.” These ἐκλεκτοί are not the ἔσχατοι (those, as Olshausen fancies, whose attitude toward the kingdom is of a more spontaneous nature, and who render their services from hearty inclination and love), but those who are selected from the multitude of the κλητοί. We are taught in the parable what it is that God chooses them for, namely, to be rewarded in an extraordinary degree (to receive more than the denarius). The train of thought, then, is simply this: It is not without reason that I say: καὶ οἱ πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι, for, from this equalizing of the first with the last, only a few will be excepted,—namely, those whom God has selected for this from among the mass of the called. Thus the parable concludes, and that very appropriately, with language which, no doubt, allows the Apostles to contemplate the prospect of receiving rewards of a peculiarly distinguished character (Matthew 19:28), but does not warrant the certainty of it, nor does it recognise the existence of anything like so-called valid claims; for, according to the idea running through the parable, the ἐκλογή is to be ascribed simply to the purpose of God (Romans 9:11; Romans 9:15 f.) See Matthew 20:15. Comp. also note on Matthew 22:14.
The simple application of Matthew 20:16 ought to warn against arbitrary attempts to trace a meaning in all the little details of the parable, many of which belong to the mere drapery of the story. The householder is God; the vineyard is the Christian theocracy, in which work is to be done in the interests of the approaching kingdom of the Messiah; the οἰχονόμος is Christ; the twelfth hour, at which the wages are paid, is the time of the second coming; the other hours mark the different periods at which believers begin to devote themselves to the service of God’s kingdom; the denarius denotes the blessings of the Messianic kingdom in themselves, at the distribution of which the circumstance of an earlier entrance into the service furnishes no claim to a fuller measure of reward, however little this may accord with human ideas of justice; hence the πρῶτοι are represented as murmuring, whereupon they are dismissed from the master’s presence. Calvin appropriately observes: “hoc murmur asserere noluit ultimo die futurum, sed tantum negare causam fore murmurandi.” But there is nothing to warrant the view that, inasmuch as they consented to be hired only for definite wages, the πρῶτοι betrayed an unworthy disposition, while those who came later exhibited a more commendable spirit in being satisfied simply with the promise of ὃ ἐὰν ᾖ δίκαιον. It can only be of service in the way of edifying application, but it is not reconcilable with the historical sense of the passage, to explain the different hours as referring to the different stages of life, childhood, youth, manhood, and old age (Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius Zigabenus), inasmuch as they are meant to represent various periods between the time of Christ and the close of the αἰὼν οὗτος, at which the second coming is to take place, and are therefore to be regarded as exhibiting the time embraced by the generation then existing (Matthew 16:28) under the figure of a day with its various divisions. Origen supposed that the allusion was to the leading epochs of history from the beginning of the world (1) till the flood; (2) till Abraham; (3) till Moses; (4) till Christ; (5) till the end of the world. This view is decidedly forbidden by Matthew 19:29 f. Yet similar explanations, based upon the history of the world, are likewise given by Theophylact and others. No less foreign is the reference to the Jews and Gentiles, which Grotius, but especially Hilgenfeld, following Jerome, has elaborated, so that the first of the labourers are taken to represent the Jews, whose terms of service, so to speak, are distinctly laid down in the law, and subsequently re-affirmed, at least, in an indefinite form; while those who come last are supposed to represent the Gentiles, who, in accordance with the new covenant of grace, receive, and that before all the others, precisely the same reward as those who were the first to be called. Scholten is disposed to think that the parable was also intended to expose the pretensions of the Jews to precedence and distinction in the kingdom.Matthew 20:16. Christ here points the moral of the parable = Matthew 19:30, the terms ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι changing places, the better to suit the story. The meaning is not: the last as the first, and the first as the last, all treated alike. True, all get the same sum; at least the last and first do, nothing being said of those between; but the point of the parable is not that the reward is the same. The denarius given to all is not the central feature of the story, but the will of the master, whose character from a commercial point of view is distinctly eccentric, and is so represented to make it serve the didactic purpose. The method of this master is commercially unworkable; combination of the two systems of legal contract and benevolence must lead to perpetual trouble. All must be dealt with on one footing. And that is what it will come to with a master of the type indicated. He will abolish contract, and engage all on the footing of generously rewarding generous service. The parable does not bring this out fully, as it gives the story only of a single day. It suggests rather than adequately illustrates its own moral, which is that God does not love a legal spirit. In the parable the men who worked on contract, and, as it came out at the end, in a legal temper, got their penny, but what awaits them in future is not to be employed at all. Work done in a legal spirit does not count in the Kingdom of God. In reward it is last, or even nowhere. This is the trend of the parable, and so viewed it has a manifest connection with Peter’s self-complacent question. On this parable vide my Parabolic Teaching of Christ.16. for many be called, but few chosen] This verse which occurs in a natural connection ch. Matthew 19:30, but is difficult to explain here, is omitted in the best MSS. The words are probably interpolated.Matthew 20:16. Οὕτως, in such a manner) The conclusion enunciated in ch. Matthew 19:30 is inferred again from the parable, though somewhat inverted, and at the same time limited by the οὕτως, as in Revelation 3:16. Not all who are first shall fail, yet all require to be on the watch, lest they should fail; and all do fail who conduct themselves as the ἑταῖρος, (‘friend,’ or comrade) mentioned in the parable. Many, also, from the intermediate ranks, may take up a higher or a lower position.—ἔσονται, shall be) With respect to the apostles, it is not a prediction, but a warning.—οἱ, the) The article is here the sign of the subject (as it is everywhere, except when that is still more definitely determined by a proper name or a pronoun, demonstrative or personal), and at the same time has reference to ch. Matthew 19:30; thus showing that the proposition is not to be taken as of universal application.—πρῶτοι, first) See the end of Matthew 20:8.—πολλοὶ, many) sc. of the first, who themselves are many (see ch. Matthew 19:30); and moreover of οἱ ἔσχατοι, the last.—κλητοὶ, called) The term κεκλημένος is applied to a labourer who has been invited, even though he should not enter the vineyard: the term κλητὸς, signifies one who has embraced the calling.—ἐκλεκτοὶ, chosen) i.e. selected in preference to others. In this passage, the first where it occurs, the word seems to denote, not all who shall be saved, but, the most excellent of human beings. See Franck’s Sermons for Sundays and Holidays, pp. 431, 432, and W. Wall’s Critical Notes, p. 27.
 Ὀλίγοι, few) who, as clinging to mere [unmixed] faith, give [cause] more honour to God, than the most zealous workmen.—V. g.Verse 16. - So the last, etc. The parable concludes with the saying with which it began (Matthew 19:30), but with some inversion in the order of the words. There it was, "Many first shall be last; and last first;" here it is, The last shall be first, and the first last. The circumstances of the parable necessitate this change. The last called were first paid, and were equal to the first in recompense; the first were behind the others in time of payment, and in the spirit with which they received their wages; they were also treated with less generosity than the others. For many be called...chosen (Matthew 22:14). This clause is omitted by א, B, and other manuscripts; but it has good authority, and is most probably genuine. It is added in explanation or justification of the preceding statement. From not seeing its applicability, and regarding it as opposing the intention of the parable, some transcribers and some editors have expunged it from the text. But it would seem that Christ takes occasion from the particular case in the parable to make a general statement, that not all who are called would receive reward; because many would not answer the call, or would nullify it by their conduct; not, as Theophylact says, that salvation is limited, but men's efforts to obtain it are feeble or negative. In other words, many outwardly members of the kingdom of God are unworthy of, and shall not share in, its spiritual blessings. Chosen. Many, that is virtually all, are chosen; but there is an election within the election, and they only who are of this inner circle shall be recompensed at the resurrection of the just. The interpretation of the parable. - As in all parables, so here, we are to regard the general scope, and not lay too much stress on details, which often, while adding to the vividness of the picture, contribute nothing to its spiritual side. The explanation of this difficult parable has greatly exercised the minds of commentators in all ages of the Church, and various have been the views with which its bearing has been regarded. We may, however, select two expositions which seem to embody most of the suggestions advanced, and are in themselves most reasonable. The first considers it as of individual application - the call of God coming to the soul at different ages of life. Thus the householder is God, the marketplace the world, the vineyard the visible Church, the labourers are men who have to do their work therein, the steward is Christ, who superintends and rewards the faithful workers. The hours of the day represent the various periods of men's life at which they hear and answer God's call to a closer walk with him, when, as modern theology terms it, they are converted. Some, at the first hour, from their very infancy, live a pure and holy life; some at the third hour, in early youth, begin to serve God effectually; others at midday, in full maturity; others at the ninth hour, when old age is creeping on them; and lastly others obey the call only at the eleventh hour, at the very approach of death. And all who have laboured at all, without regard to the length of service, receive the "penny," i.e. not some indefinite temporal benefit, but eternal life, which in a general sense (without considering the difference of degrees which shall exist) is the same for all. The apparent unfairness of this recompense, if we take a merely human view of the transaction, is obvious. They who have lived a life of holiness, and they who have given to God only the dregs of their ill-spent days, receive the same salvation. The difficulty is removed in two ways. We may say that the capacity for receiving and enjoying the reward depends ca the recipient, and that what to one would be infinite bliss and satisfaction, to another would offer far inferior enjoyment. Or we may take refuge in the mysteriousness of God's arrangements, and hold that the considerations in accordance with which God apportions his rewards are known only to him, and are truly, and are intended to be, beyond human understanding. Further, if the hours represent the stages of human life at which Christians are called, surely, to make the parable concinnous, they ought to be the same persons who are invited on each occasion, not different ones. We should be told, not that the householder found others wanting work, and sent all thus found into the vineyard; but that some of those called at the various hours refused the work and scoffed at his offer, while others after a time accepted it, and at the approach of the night all the idle remnant consented to labour, thankful at last to win wages for little trouble. But the parable says nothing of all this, and would need much alteration to make it speak so. There is another difficulty which has to be met, if the above interpretation is adopted. How are we to explain the murmuring of the discontented labourers? There can be no envy and displeasure in heaven. It is not conceivable that any who have obtained the gift of eternal life should be dissatisfied with their reward or jealous of others. This is not a mere accessory which is outside the spirit of the story, and adds no item to its mystical signification; it is really the leading feature, and the householder's own interference and reproof are based entirely on this behaviour of the first called. If the "penny" signifies eternal life, and the labourers are all the called, there is no satisfactory explanation of this part of the parable. The murmur is heard after the reception of the reward, and is censured accordingly; these things could not be found in the Church triumphant; none can murmur there; if they did feel envy and discontent, they would not be worthy of a place in the kingdom. Therefore another interpretation must be advanced which will allow the proper importance to this detail of the parable. The only one that does this is that which gives a national, not simply an individual, bearing to the story. According to this exposition, it applies to the calling of the Jews and the Gentiles, though there are still particulars which do not entirely or without some violence suit the application. The "penny" which all receive is the favour of God, the privileges that crown and reward the members of his kingdom. God's ancient people were first called to work in his vineyard. The various hours of the day cannot be accurately explained. Many interpreters follow St. Gregory in defining the first hour as extending from Adam to Noah, the third from Noah to Abraham, the sixth from Abraham to Moses, the ninth from Moses to the coming of Christ, the eleventh from the coming of Christ to the end of the world. During all the day, up to the eleventh hour, the call was confined to the Jews and their progenitors; in the eleventh hour the Gentiles are called, and, accepting the call, receive the same privileges as the Jews. It is better to forego any attempt to interpret the various hours and the various sets of labourers definitely, except to observe that the first called, with whom a covenant was made, plainly represent the Jews, the people called under the covenant of works, who were to be rewarded according to their service; the other workers are not paid stipulated wages; they receive ("I will give") reward of free grace in accordance with God's inscrutable appointment. That the Jews murmured at the admission of the Gentiles to the kingdom of God and the Father's favour, we are taught in many places. The discontent of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son is a case in point. So in Acts 13:45, 46, the Jews are filled with envy that the Word should be spoken to and accepted by heathens, and St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:16) complains that the Jews forbade him and his fellow apostles "to speak to the Gentiles, that they might be saved." Our Lord looks forward to and prepares his disciples for this envious and ungenerous behaviour, as he continually teaches that the gospel is for all men everywhere, confined to no people or country, but free as the air of heaven or the light of the all-fostering sun. These Gentiles are the last in time, but by their willing service and obedience in the faith are made first; while God's ancient people, once the first, become by their jealousy and hatred of others the last. "There (ἐκεῖ) shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:28, 29). This momentous change in the relation of the peculiar people to the rest of the world was thus foretold and prepared for. And the lesson ends with the mournful fact, read by the eye of the Omniscient, that though virtually all the Jews were called, yet but a small remnant will accept the gospel - the elect of grace, a little flock. By this parable, regarded in its primary application as a reply to Peter's question (Matthew 19:27), "What shall we have therefore?" the apostles are warned that they are not to expect as their due something supereminent over those called later than themselves; that the reward is not of merit, but of free grace. This last thought pervades the whole similitude, and must be borne carefully in mind, whether we take the individual, or the national, or any other mixed interpretation.
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