In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged us not to call each other names. “Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment,” He said. “And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (3 Nephi 12:22; see also Matthew 5:22).
The word “Raca” (ῥακά) is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word reika (רֵיקָא), meaning “empty” or “worthless.” Most English translations simply include the word as it appears in the Greek text, but some provide an English equivalent:
- “If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court” (New Living Translation).
- “Whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be answerable to the supreme court” (New American Standard Bible).
- “Whoever may say to his brother, Stupid, will be in danger of the Sanhedrin, and whoever may say, Moron, will be in danger of the Gehenna of fire” (Literal Standard Version).
(See Matthew 5:22, Parallel Translations on biblehub.com.)
Why focus specifically on name-calling? Aren’t other forms of abuse more harmful?
Martin Teicher, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, has studied the impact of verbal abuse. He has found that harmful words, including insulting, belittling, and demeaning language, can damage brain connections in young people. The effects of this damage can persist for years. High levels of exposure to verbal abuse as children, either from parents or from peers, are correlated with higher likelihood of mental health issues and drug use many years later. (See “Hurtful Words: Exposure to Peer Verbal Aggression is Associated with Elevated Psychiatric Symptom Scores and Corpus Callosum Abnormalities,” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2010 Dec; 167(12): 1464–1471.) The following chart shows the relationship between high levels of peer verbal abuse and subsequent negative outcomes:
Teicher said, “People hear that spanking is bad, so they stop doing that and become more verbally abusive. It turns out, that may be worse” (Elizabeth Dougherty, “Cutting Words May Scar Young Brains,” Harvard Medical School News, 20 February 2009).
Not all scars are visible, and we would be wise to be more aware of the damage that can be caused by harmful words.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland observed:
Everyone has the right to be loved, to feel peaceful, and to find safety at home. Please, may we try to maintain that environment there. The promise of being a peacemaker is that you will have the Holy Ghost for your constant companion and blessings will flow to you “without compulsory means” forever. No one can employ a sharp tongue or unkind words and still “sing the song of redeeming love.”“Not as the World Giveth,” General Conference, April 2021
Today, I will pay more attention to the impact of my words on the people around me, particularly my family. I will strive to speak words of inspiration and encouragement and avoid words that might be harmful or limiting.
Paul, I’ve always wondered and never looked up “raca,” so thank you so
much for sharing your research on this point. I spoke at the funeral of
a dear friend on Friday and the experience, shared with her family and
other friends, was so sweet to remember and miss her in the context of
gratitude for the blessings she had brought into our lives. Since
reading your post, I’ve been thinking about words that counter “raca” —
words like friend, sister, beloved, dear. Maybe even aunt?
Love to you, Lavina
Absolutely aunt! Uplifting relationships fill our lives with meaning and joy. My life has been enriched by being related to you.
Thank you for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!