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Luke: Gracious Theologian The Jesus of Luke

30 November, 1999

Wilfred Harrington says that in Luke’s gospel that we find a Jesus of sensitivity, compassion and great gentleness. Luke reflects on God as the God of sinners. Luke does not seek to suppress the tragedy and mystery of the cross nor undervalue its saving role but his Jesus helps lift the burden of sin.

118 pp, columba Press 1997. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



Chapter One       Luke
Chapter Two      Jesus
Chapter Three     Birth of the Messiah
Chapter Four      Prophet and Teacher
Chapter Five      Vindicator of the Poor
Chapter Six        Friend of Sinners
Chapter Seven   Death and Vindication
Chapter Eight     Prayer

For Reference and Further Study
Index to Lucan Passages


The gospel of Luke, Fr Harrington says is the gospel that portrays Jesus most clearly as sensitive, compassionate and gentle Saviour but yet there is nothing soft or easy-going about him. On the other hand, he does reflect the God who is the God of sinners. The Lucan Jesus, who truly knows the Father, is wholly in the business of lifting the burden of sin. Luke does not seek to suppress the tragedy and mystery of the cross nor undervalue its saving role. He does not question the need for the disciple of Jesus to deny the self, to take up the cross, and follow the Master.  Luke’s preaching of the good news may be more congenial than others. A book for everyone, scholar and layman.

Chapter One: LUKE
Only Luke is with me now (2 Tim 4:11)
Luke was a second or, perhaps, third-generation Christian. He was surely a Gentile and a native, very likely, of Syrian Antioch. He was well educated, a fact borne out by the quality and flexibility of his Greek style. He was, evidently, well versed in the Greek Bible. There is impressive traditional witness to his authorship of the third gospel and Acts of the Apostles. A Luke is mentioned three times in the New Testament: in Philemon 24, listed among Paul’s fellow workers; in Co14:14, Luke, the ‘beloved physician,’ and in 2 Tim 4:11, ‘Only Luke is with me.’ If this Luke is author of Luke-Acts, it would make him a companion of Paul. In the same line are the so-called We-Sections of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:128:16) where the author writes in the first person. While it may be maintained that this is no more than a recognised Hellenistic literary convention, it is arguable that the passages are something of a diary. On the other hand, the author of Luke-Acts shows no acquaintance with Paul’s letters. If we, reasonably, accept the attribution of the authorship of Luke-Acts to the named New Testament Luke, we may think of him as having been for some time an associate of Paul. He would have been unfamiliar with the earlier career of Paul – hence some discrepancies between his account of events and Paul’s. And he would have written before there was a collection of Paul’s letters.

It is not possible to determine where Luke-Acts was written. As to date: it was written after Mark (usually dated around 70 AD). The gospel presupposes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (Lk 13:35; 21:20). The prevailing tendency is to date the whole work 80-85 AD.


It is unfortunate that an understandable desire to group the four gospels meant the separation of Acts of the Apostles from the gospel of Luke. The fact is, gospel and Acts belong together as two parts of a single work. The gospel begins in Jerusalem, more specifically in the temple, with the message of the angel to Zechariah; it closes with the disciples of Jesus at prayer in the temple (Lk 24:53). The plan of Acts is firmly sketched in Acts 1:18 – ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ There are few more dramatic endings in literature than the picture of Paul, in Rome (the Roman Empire, remember, is the ‘world’ of the New Testament) under house-arrest, ‘proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance’ (Acts 28:31). Jerusalem is central. In the gospel, the movement is toward Jerusalem; in Acts the movement is away from Jerusalem. For Luke the city and its temple are symbols of the people of Israel.

When gospel and Acts are, together, taken into account, one can appreciate Luke’s purpose and achievement. Then one can see that his object was to present the definitive stage of God’s saving plan from the birth of the Baptist to the proclamation of the gospel in the capital of the Gentile world – Rome. Acts is not, in the first place, a history of the Church; its first concern is the spread of the word of God. Luke’s theme is the progress of the good news from Jerusalem to Rome. His is a message of salvation to the Gentiles. Simeon had seen in Jesus ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Lk 2:32) and Paul’s closing words to the Roman Jews are: ‘Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen’ (Acts 28:28).

This concern does not eclipse the role of Israel. The beginning of the gospel attests that the church does not replace Israel. Himself come from Judaism, Jesus had striven, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to renew Israel. The salvation which he achieved and proclaimed meant that one be brought to God. He found that the marginalised Galileans, women, ‘sinners’ – were more open to his challenge than the Judaeans and their leaders. But this offer was to all, for Israel needed saving as much as the Gentiles. In the gospel, after his account of the infancies of John and Jesus, Luke turned to the preaching of the rule of God, first by the precursor and then by the Messiah. At the close of his work he has Paul proclaiming the kingdom at the centre of the Roman world (Acts 28:30-31). The gospel tells of the mission of Jesus and of the saving event of his death and resurrection; it ends with his glorification at the ascension. Jesus had come as Messiah of his people and had found himself rejected by them. But his mission had not failed. He had brought salvation (Lk 24:47).


Luke is a gifted storyteller. Just think of the best-loved parables: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Dives and Lazarus. While attributed by him to Jesus, and while they mw;t, indeed, in substance, have come from Jesus, they surely have been shaped by Luke himself. Luke can and does work with a broader canvas. He forged an impressive narrative which started with a vision in the Jerusalem temple and ended at the heart of imperial Rome. ‘Luke-Acts shows us. an author of synthetic imagination, who was able to make the story of Jesus (already current in the church’s tradition) and the story of Christianity’s beginnings into <;me coherent and interconnected narrative which continued the ancient biblical story of God and his people.(2)

Narrative Criticism
In the study of Luke-Acts, narrative criticism has particular relevance because Luke expressly describes his work as a diegesis, ‘narrative,’ (Lk 1:1). In narrative criticism ‘meaning’ is found in the encounter between the text and the reader. While narrative critics do not ignore the findings of historical-critical scholarship (for that matter, historical <:riticism and narrative criticism are complementary) they do ask different questions of the text. If the answer is, in each case, different, it is because the question is other. Narrative critics analyse Luke's gospel with reference to story and discourse. In other words, they look to the content of the narrative (story) and to how the story is told (discourse).

Luke-Acts was not written in a vacuum. The author was, naturally, influenced by established literary genres. In the first place, LukeActs resembles Hellenistic historical writing. This is, understandably, more evident in Acts. The many speeches there are typical of the role of speeches in Hellenistic historiography. All of them are Lucan compositions and are intended as commentary on related events. Luke’s work also resembles Jewish apologetic: in his presentation of the spread of the word, he sets himself to defend the Christian movement.


The point has been made that Luke-Acts is a single work, and this will be kept in mind. The focus of this book, however, is the Jesus of the gospel. We look, now, to the gospel alone. In the manner of the Hellenistic writers of his day, Luke dedicated his book to a patron, at the same time setting out the occasion, method and purpose of his work. He does so in an elegant Greek which contrasts sharply with the style of the immediately following chapters (his infancy narratives). It is probable that the prologue (1:1-4) was meant to introduce both parts of Luke’s work and the brief reference in Acts 1:1 marks the link between both volumes and suggests the continuity of the whole. Luke had decided to write a gospel and had done thorough preparatory research: he had carefully studied these things ‘from the beginning,’ which meant going beyond the starting-point of the apostolic catechesis, the baptism of Jesus, to the infancy of Jesus and of his precursor. His work will be ‘orderly,’ with a theological rather than chronological order. Theophilus, addressed as ‘Most Excellent,’ was a man of some social standing who would help to promote the work. He himself could learn from the gospel an appreciation of the solid foundation of the teaching he had received.

Plot and Characters
A gospel, addressed to a Christian community, has the concerns and needs of the community in mind. These are concerns and needs perceived by the evangelist (not necessarily by the recipients or not, at least, by all of them). His readers know the basic story as well as the author. He makes his point by telling the story in his way. It is story: with plot and characters. Each of the evangelists tells essentially the same story (manifestly true of the synoptists), but the plots and emphases of the gospels differ considerably. The events and actions of a story, its plot, regularly involve conflict; indeed conflict (not necessarily violent conflict) is the heart of most stories. Not alone do the gospels have plot but the plot is, in a sense, an evangelist’s interpretation of the story. As writers of narrative literature, the evangelists achieved their purpose by means of plot and characterisation.

Characterisation refers to the manner in which a narrative brings characters to life in a story. In literary terms, ‘characters’ are not the same as people. In day-to-day life we know one another imperfectly. I may guess at your thoughts; I cannot really know what you are thinking. Characters can be transparent. The narrator may fully expose a character to the readers, can permit the reader to get inside the character. Alternatively, one can present a ‘true’ picture of any character. The gospels, in which Jesus is a literary character, make him known to us more profoundly than he, as a person, was in fact known to his contemporaries. Each gospel has several characters of varying importance for the flow of the story. Jesus is always the chief character; the evangelist speaks, primarily, through him. Jesus carries the central message of each gospel. And Jesus is chief spokesman of an evangelist’s concern.

The plot of Luke revolves around conflict. The primary conflict is between Jesus and the religious authorities and reaches its culmination on the cross. In the infancy narrative (1:5-2:52) Luke, in characterising Jesus as Messiah, Son of God and Saviour, portrays him as an eschatological figure. The antagonistic religious authorities are described in sharp contrast to Jesus. The first encounter is, significantly, in the temple, the house of Jesus’ Father and seat of the authorities’ power. In 5:17-16:11, a cycle of five controversies (see Mk 2:1-3:6), the question of who holds real authority in Israel is raised. The tone of the ‘conversation’ is subdued – contrast the naked antagonism in Mk 3:6. This relatively mild tone continues up to chapter 19: the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple (Lk 19:28-44, 45-46). Jesus, hailed as Israel’s Messiah-King (v. 38), then takes over his temple (19:47; 20:1). At this point conflict with the religious authorities intensifies (19:47-21:38). They are out ‘to kill’ Jesus (19:47). By challenging them in the temple he struck at the root of their status as Israel’s leaders. Their authority was in question (20:22, 27-33). Jesus effectively silenced them: ‘They no longer dared to ask him another question’ (20:40). At the close of the temptation story (4:13) Luke observed that the devil ‘departed from him until an opportune time.’ Now (22:1-6) Satan is back on the scene. The religious authorities brought about Jesus’ death as instruments of Satan. The final confrontation is at 23:35 – ‘The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!'”

The last time the authorities confront the earthly Jesus, they abjectly repudiate him as being Israel’s Messiah-King, regard him as bereft of all authority, see him as doomed to destruction, and are utterly convinced that, in their conflict with him, they have gained the victory and been vindicated as the rightful leaders of Israe1. (3)

The resolution of the conflict is ironic: resurrection and ascension (ch 24) are God’s vindication of Jesus. He is, after all, the one who holds universal authority.

Minister of the Word
Jesus had declared that he and his preaching were the fulfilment of what in the scriptures was associated with God’s salvation. He stressed the radical character of the reaction to his kingdom preaching (Lk 16:16); he proclaimed ‘salvation’ (9:2). Christians had perceived that salvation was in him. The subject of their kingdom preaching was Jesus himself: the crucified, risen and exalted Messiah, the Lord who is present to his followers through his Spirit. Luke has told the story of the Christ-event: Christ proclaimed in his fullness.

Luke, minister of the word (1:2), an evangelist, has remained faithful to the general plan of his pioneering predecessor, Mark. He has, however, made important changes in this order and so has given to his gospel quite another bias. He has prefaced the Marcan material with the long infancy narrative (chs 1-2) which, as an overture to the gospel, sounds many of the motifs to be orchestrated in gospel and Acts. Luke broke with Mark in what are known as the ‘great omission’ – the dropping of Mk 6:45-8:26 – and the interpolations: Lk 6:20-8:3 and 9:51-18:14. The latter, the ‘great interpolation,’ witnesses to his skill and his literary independence. Mark did have a rather hurried journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke turned it into a leisured stroll during which Jesus had ample time to fit in varied teaching and a host of parables, most of them proper to Luke. In short, one must acknowledge that, despite general agreement with Mark and Matthew, the third gospel is assertively distinctive. This is only to be expected. As we have observed, an evangelist, addressing a Christian community, is not telling the Jesus-story for the first time. The original reader/hearers know the lines of the story quite as well as the evangelist. What gave them pause was the question: why is the story presented in just this way? The challenge of the evangelist lay, precisely, in the distinctive slant.

Salvation History
Luke is a theologian of salvation history – the entrance of salvation into history. He alludes to a basic divine ‘plan’ for the salvation of humankind, one which was being realised in the activity of Jesus (7:30). The concept of such a plan is what underlies the ‘necessity’, e.g. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (24:26), which is often associated with what Jesus does or says and with what happens as fulfilment of scripture. (4) That the plan of God concerns the ‘salvation’ of humankind receives special emphasis in the Lucan writings.

For Luke, salvation history has three phases: a) period of Israel, from creation to the appearance of John the Baptist: the time of the law and the prophets (1:5 – 3:1); b) period of Jesus, from the baptism to the ascension of Jesus: the time of Jesus’ ministry, death and exaltation (3:2 – 24:51); c) period of the church: the time of the spread of the word of God (Lk 24:52-Acts 28:31). If creation is the beginning and if the spread of the word will persist to the close of time, then Luke’s understanding of salvation history is emphatically universalist. The new inbreaking of divine saving activity into human history includes the extension of salvation to persons outside of God’s chosen people of old. The change involves a distinctive view of Israel. God has not replaced his chosen people with a new one. The church is not a new Israel but a reconstituted Israel with Gentiles taking their place beside Jews who had accepted the message of Jesus.

Salvation had come with Jesus. After the ascension, men and women would be saved through him and because of what he had accomplished. The events of the life of Jesus were decisive for the world, constituting the beginning of the last days. For Luke, Jesus was fulfilment of all the promises of God and that in spite of the outward circumstances of his life which blinded the eyes of his contemporaries to the reality in their presence. This implied that all that went before Jesus was preparatory. Yet, preparation, fulfilment in Christ, and universal salvation through him in this age together form one divine plan for the salvation of the world, a plan progressively realised in history.

Lucan christology must be fitted into the pattern of Luke’s salvation history. Comparison of the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel with that of Luke alerts one to the remarkable theological pluralism of the early church. In Matthew the risen Lord declares: ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20). The Lucan Jesus departs this world until the parousia (Lk 24:44-53; Acts 1:911). At his Ascension Jesus had left his disciples, had taken his place at the right hand of God. This fact leaves Luke free to concentrate on the man of Nazareth who walked among us. We, who are so tempted to short-cut the stark implication of the incarnation, would be well advised to focus on Mark and Luke. If John it is who has given us the notion of incarnation, it is Mark and Luke who stress for us the humanness of the Son. Jesus is the human person in whom God is definitively revealed for the salvation of humankind.

For Luke, Jesus is the eschatological prophet – a prophet who is also the sage of Israelite tradition. As prophet it is not surprising that Jesus (like Jeremiah) should face misunderstanding and opposition nor that he should, in the end, meet violent death. Jesus did not die a hero on the battlefield. He died, faithful prophet, a martyr’s death. Luke is intrigued by Jesus, fascinated by this man’s concern for the poor, the outcast.

The life of Jesus has its own thrust and forms a unity. Luke refuses to single out anyone event, not even the death of Jesus, and give it a special saving significance. It is the whole life of this man which, by the faith that it inspires and the ‘following’ that it challenges, played a saving role: ‘for the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost’ (19:10). Consistently, after Easter, Luke focuses on the struggles of Jesus’ followers. His sequel to the story of Jesus is not cast in the realm of the marvellous (though Luke does have a weakness for the ‘marvellous’ on a lesser scale) but in the reality, often painful, of the Christian Way. There is nothing triumphalist about Luke.

For Luke the word of God was made flesh in Jesus but in another manner than for John. It is not the Johannine pre-existent Word but the word of God formerly addressed to the prophets that has taken flesh in Jesus (Acts 10:36-37). One may equally well say that in Jesus the flesh becomes word: the messenger becomes the message. In their turn the apostles carryon the incarnation of the word as they become the human suffering bearers of God’s message. They carry the word differently from Jesus – in his name, not in their own.

The christological titles are a sign of the non-conformity of Jesus. In his life Jesus is conformed to the prophets of Israel. By the titles bestowed on him he stands radically apart from them. The incarnation of the word in his life has a specificity which the presence of God in the prophets and apostles does not carry. Thus the infancy gospel, far from being an appendage to Lucan christology, is where the lines of that christology come together. On this point, Luke is close to John. The theology of Luke is christological: it is linked to Easter and Ascension, because of the Passion – but also because of the Nativity.

Luke has told the Jesus-story not only with christological but with soteriological intent: what Jesus did, said and suffered had and has a significance for and a bearing on human history. Acts 4:12 makes this clear: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ It has been argued that Luke downplayed ‘the cross’. In fact, reference to the death of Jesus in the Lucan work is impressive. Luke does not seek to suppress the tragedy and the mystery of the cross nor to underplay its saving role. He does not question the necessity for the disciple of Jesus to deny oneself, to take up the cross and to follow the Master (Lk 9:23; 14:27).

Then there is the manner in which Luke regards the effects of the Christ-event. ‘Salvation’ is evidently an important effect (see 19:10). While the verbal form ‘to forgive sins’ is frequent in the Synoptics, the abstract form ‘forgiveness of sins’ is a Lucan usage. Luke sums up Jesus’ work as the release of men and women from their debts (sins) in the sight of God. By all that he was. and all that he did he has cancelled the debt incurred by their sinful conduct. In the sayings of Jesus ‘peace’ stands for the bounty he brings to humankind. And if he seems to deny that his coming brings peace (12:51), it is because he ‘knows that men and women will have to make a decision about him, either for or against him. Those who accept him into their lives will know the peace which he alone can bring.

Dante named Luke scriba mansuetudinis Christi – the. writer who had caught and portrayed the graciousness of Jesus. His Jesus had found in Isaiah 61:1-2 the programme of his mission. In his
Nazareth synagogue Jesus opened the scroll of Isaiah and read out:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Lk 4:18-19).

Then he declared: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (v. 21).5 The Lucan Jesus displays a gracious concern for the ‘little ones’. Instances leap to mind: the raising of a poor widow’s son (7:11-17), welcome of the ‘lost boy’ (15:11-24), healing of a crippled woman (13:10-17). Most eloquent, perhaps, is Jesus’ delicate response to the extravagant and brave gesture of the woman who had experienced his understanding and forgiving love (7:36-50). All the while, if there is great gentleness, there is nothing soft or easy-going about the Jesus of Luke. His demand is that one take up one’s cross daily. And there is something almost shocking about his call for total renunciation, his invitation to give up all one has.

The Evangelist
Luke’s spirituality is firmly inspired by his commitment to Jesus that much is obvious. What matters is his commitment to the Jesus he recognised. And here is where Dante’s observation is perceptively true. The Jesus of Luke is – though the title occurs only once (2:11)Saviour. God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ might seem to be a new-fangled invention of Liberation Theology. In fact, it is a belated re-discovery of an option that was there from the first. No put down of Liberation Theology; rather, a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Liberation theologians for opening our eyes to what we should never have failed to see. The Lucan Jesus does indeed reflect the God who is readily recognisable in the Old Testament. He is, disconcertingly, God of sinners. Apart from the so-called judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46, there is no passage more subversive of Christian ‘orthodoxy’ than Lk 15:11-32. A ‘sinner’ is welcomed back into the home of his Father, welcomed without strings, welcomed at the word: ‘I will get up and go.’ The Father-God had yearned for an opening – he needed no more. Some time or other the church, so readily arbiter of ‘reconciliation,’ must really learn that the Father of Jesus is prodigal of forgiveness. Let us be honest about it: bishops and theologians have multiplied’ sins’. The God of Jesus knows that there is enough human misery and sin as it is. The Lucan Jesus, who really knows the Father, is wholly in the business of lifting the burden of sin – not of adding to it. That is why Jesus is Saviour.

What of the journey of Luke? He was one who had found, in Jesus, the inspiration and goal of his life. He viewed this Jesus in the light of his own temperament. It is, obviously, the ‘softer’ side of the character of Jesus that appealed to him. A distinctive feature of Luke-Acts is the prominence of women in the narrative: more women are listed in Luke than in the other three gospels together. (6) Luke’s sensitivity to the ‘poor’ is not unrelated: in the world of his day women were among the poor, the marginalised. In the same spirit he was concerned for’ outcast’ Samaritans (10:30-37; 17:11-19). After all, Jesus had come ‘to preach good news to the poor’ (4:18).

2. Johnson, Luke T., The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991),3.
3. Kingsbury, Jack Dean, ‘The Plot of Luke’s Story of Jesus,’ Interpretation (1994).376; see 369-378.
4. The verb dei, ‘it is necessary’ -like the verb paradidómi, ‘to deliver up’ – occurs freely in the gospels and Acts. The meaning is brought out in Acts 2:23, in Peter’s first speech to Israel: ‘This man [Jesus], handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’ This surely does not point to a calculated, inflexible divine purpose. Rather, it is an attempt to come to terms with the inexplicable fact of the death of Jesus. It is acceptance of mystery: we cannot perceive the reason, but, God knows.
5. This firm declaration of the Lucan Jesus is, assuredly, a programme of radical liberation – rightly discerned by liberation theologians. Noteworthy is the fact that the quotation from Isaiah stops short of the phrase ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’ (Is 61:2). The God of Luke, prodigal Father of the ‘friend of sinners,’ is wholly in the business of salvation.
6. Advertance to wome remains a notable feature even when it is seen that Luke’s stance is not quite as positive as it looks at first sight. Seepp. 70-72

Biblography for further study
G. B. Caird, St Luke (London: Penguin Books, 1963).
F. W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age. A Commentary on St Luke’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
L. Doohan, Luke. The Perennial Spirituality (Santa Fe: Bear, 1985).
J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke. 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1981, 1985).
L. T. Johnson, Luke. Sacra Pagina 3. A Michael Glazier Book (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993).
R. Karris, What Are They Saying about Luke and Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1979).
E. LaVerdiere, Luke. New Testament Message 5 (Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier, 1980).
M. Prior, Jesus the Liberator. (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1995).
Interpretation (1994). The Gospel of Luke.

R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. Updated Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1993).- The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. (New York/London: Doubleday / Chapman, 1994).
L. T. Johnson, Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina 5. A Michael Glazier Book. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).
J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Vol. 1. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. (New York: Doubleday, 1991).
E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism. (London: SCM, 1985).
The Historical Figure of Jesus. (London: Penguin Books, 1995).
T. K. Seim, The Double Message. Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts.
(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994).

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