Question: "Why did Jesus warn against saying the word raca in Matthew 5:22?"
Answer: Matthew 5:22 is the only passage in the Bible where the term raca is used. Raca comes from the Aramaic term reqa. It was a derogatory expression meaning “empty-headed,” insinuating a person’s stupidity or inferiority. It was an offensive name used to show utter contempt for another person. Jesus warned that the use of such a word to describe someone was tantamount to murder and deserving of the severest punishment of the law.
In Matthew 5:21, Jesus recalled the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). In characteristic fashion, Jesus took the old law one step further by explaining the true significance of the law—a deeper, spiritual meaning they had never seen.
First, Jesus warns that the very act of murder finds its roots in an angry, murderous spirit: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22a). God, who examines the very thoughts and intents of the heart, will issue judgment upon unrighteous anger. Next, Jesus warns against name-calling, using “raca” as an example (verse 22b). Then He issues a third warning against those who call someone a “fool” (verse 22c).
The first-century Jews recognized that “anyone who murders will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21), but Jesus warns that even calling another person insulting names such as “raca” is sinful. Murder begins in the heart, and epithets such as “raca” are signs that there is hatred lurking within. The hatred that causes one person to hurl insults is the same hatred that causes another to commit murder. The attitude of the heart is the same, and it’s this attitude that makes a person morally guilty before God.
Jesus not only warns us against expressing unrighteous anger, which can lead to murder, but clearly commands that disparaging denunciations and name-calling be avoided. Such abusive words reveal the true intents of one’s heart and mind for which we will be held in judgment: “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10; cf. 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Chronicles 28:9).