and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.” (Mark 1:15 WEB)

I once read a devotion to our staff in Vienna. It’s important to first note most of the people in the room speak English as a second, third, fourth or umpteenth language. Some have excellent English vocabularies some are still struggling with the basics of the language.

One of the words in the devotional was vicarious which elicited quirky looks from my fellow colleagues. I read the devotion and when asked explained the word meant simply, “to be a substitute for someone else.” One of the North American colleagues gave at me with a quirky look and commented, “I think it means more than that.”

This started me thinking, “Did I really know the meaning of the word.” So I went looking. Here’s what I found and some thoughts on using such words, especially in a foreign language setting.

According to a World Book definition:

Vicarious: (1) done or suffered for others, (2) felt by sharing in the experience of another, (3) taking the place of another, (4) the substitution of one person for another.

As a side note the etymology of the word comes from the Latin vicar which is a substitute.

The same definition is confirmed through several on‑line sources and in numerous dictionaries I consulted. So saying that “vicarious” means doing something on behalf of someone else is actually a good definition to simplify the word for non‑native English speaking staff members.

The word is often used by theologians in describing the substitutionary death of Jesus on our behalf. It’s such a unique word it sounds like it has its roots in some theological conclave of overly educated seminary students. Then again theologians are notorious for confusing the chasteness of God’s revelation. By applying multi‑syllabic obscure words which confound the masses they insure their prestige as closer to God because they can pronounce and wield such literary extensions. Just think about words like propitiation which have oozed their way into our speech as believers thanks to the 17th century King’s English. In truth many believers have no concept of what the word means or its implications. (Propitiation: a conciliatory offering to God.) (Conciliatory: From reconcile, to regain friendship or trust by appropriate or pleasant behavior.)

Ah, but all this is just fun with words and demonstrates the great expanse and flexibility of the English language. It’s no wonder people don’t understand how to translate into their own language when our language is often bedimmed by frequently misapplied terminology in the religious realm.

I guess I’m simplistic. I try and sometimes I succeed in using the right language skills for the right situation. Other times I find people staring at me as if I sprouted a third eye. Highfalutin words are great, in the proper context. I have to remind myself the message is important not my ability to wax eloquently adorning my speech with big words just to garner attention.

Jesus used simple examples, the common tongue to proclaim a simple message, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What more needs to be promulgated.


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