Return to Sermon Archive


Face Recognition

June 23, 2002

Matthew 10:24-39

by Tony Grant



A blond-haired woman has 140,000 hairs on her head. A black-haired woman has 110,000. So you can forget about "blonde jokes." A hair-counting German scientist, whom I suspect was blonde, discovered that the fair-haired among us have much fuller heads.

Speaking of the hairs of our head, have you heard the old saying that "A hair in the head is worth two in the brush." Or how about this one: "If your hair starts to trouble you, don't worry it will come out all right."

Those are terrible. Let us talk about other distinguishing characteristics of a human being. Researchers have found that the human face has eighty so-called "landmarks"--including the bridge and tip of the nose, the size of the mouth and eyes, and the cheekbones. These landmarks or "facemarks" are used in an increasingly important area of investigation called "biometrics," the process of identifying people by unique physical characteristics. For almost a century, investigators have used fingerprints as a biometric, and of course DNA is now employed for purposes of identification.

Right now, however, the hottest branch of biometrics is face recognition. Not surprisingly, a pioneer in using this technology is the gambling industry. The Trump Marina Casino in Atlantic City has linked its extensive network of surveillance cameras to a photo database of some 9,200 criminals and a biometric face recognition system designed by Visage Technologies of Littleton, Massachusetts. "The system, which works by continually scanning every face in the casino, trolls the picture database of miscreants for matches. Within days of its installation, the cameras identified a group of six baccarat cheaters who'd previously been arrested in California." [Charlie Guenther of Trump security] called the local police. "’We sat there and just waited for them to do their cheating move--distracting the dealer and switching cards,’ says Guenther. ‘The cops swooped in and arrested them on the spot.’" "Since then, the Trump Marina casino has identified hundreds of ne'er-do-wells and either has ejected them or had them arrested."

But many security experts feel that the real place that face recognition can make a difference is airline safety. As airports scramble to beef up security in the wake of the September 11 attacks, aviation insiders say that face recognition technology could become a major weapon in the war against terrorism.

CNN reports that Iceland is already using the technology to screen passengers, and other countries may follow its lead. Special cameras in airports scan fifteen people at a time, focusing on the eighty landmarks of the human face, and computers compare these pictures to a database of images at the rate of a million faces a second. Apparently, matches can be made easily. Face recognition technology needs only fourteen to twenty of those eighty landmarks to spot a face that authorities are seeking.

As Jesus says in v26, "nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing [is] secret that will not become known."

But are these face recognition revelations always a good thing? When this technology was used for the first time to spot known criminals at the Super Bowl last year, civil liberties groups objected. The installation of a similar system in Tampa soon afterward led to street protests.

But this criticism has faded since the terrorist attacks, and airport authorities are now rushing to test and deploy the systems. Face recognition is being promoted as a technological leap beyond passwords and personal identification numbers, an innovation that promises to fight terrorism, identity theft, and all other forms of lawlessness.

Parallels and Contrasts

But the precise recognition of individual human faces is not new. God has been making positive identifications for years. In Matthew 10:24-39, Jesus is giving a baccalaureate speech to the disciples. He is preparing them for a mission and for the opposition they will encounter when the radical demands of Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God become clear.

V24 opens with an old saying, an aphorism, particularly suited to the occasion: "The disciple is not above his master/teacher" (10:24a). This expression is the first element of a pair: disciple-teacher // slave-lord. In Sabbath School, we have been studying the Psalms, and we have learned that Hebrew poetry frequently uses paralleled couplets that essentially say the same thing twice. V24 is Hebrew poetry, even though it was originally written in Greek.

The disciple is not above his master,

Nor the servant above his lord.

The first half of v25 ("it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master") brings us to the reason why Jesus is using this old saying--to warn his disciples that simply by being identified with him, they will be persecuted, they will be opposed, they will be hated, just as he himself was.

The Pharisees had earlier attempted to discredit Jesus' powers of exorcism by asserting that he was in league with the powers of evil, with Satan or Beelzebul. Jesus' open performance of exorcism made him, and his disciples, an easy target for anxieties and hostilities.

Jesus' next words to his disciples continue the techniques of Hebrew poetry--this time using contrasting ideas: that which is covered up is uncovered; that which is unknown is made known; that which is said in the dark will be told in the light; that which is whispered will be proclaimed from the housetops. We are not to fear those who can only kill the body but we should fear the one who can destroy both body and soul. Lastly, we have the contrast between sparrows and disciples (vv. 26-31). The verses reflect a wisdom tradition that was likely common to most rabbinical teachers of the first century. Jesus here uses a teaching style that most rabbis would have used.


Now we ought to think about some theology here. V28 suggests a dualism of the human person—namely a body and a soul. Often we hear preachers talk about an immortal soul that survives physical death. But this verse does not indicate that the human soul is, in itself, immortal or incapable of being destroyed. Indeed, the whole point of the verse is that the soul can be destroyed. The soul is the true essence of the human self and Jesus’ point is that essence can be obliterated. He says the same thing in Matthew 16:26 "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" again, the point of the verse is that the soul can be lost, and this is the supreme loss, which must be avoided, even at the cost of life itself.


The word translated "hell" in verse 28 is the place name Gehenna, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew place name ge' hinnom, "the valley of the son of Hinnom" (Joshua 15:8). This valley, just south of Jerusalem, was the location of the notorious Topheth [a place where child sacrifice had been done in ancient times (see Jeremiah 7:31, 32; 19:2, 6; 32:35)]. The site may originally have been simply a refuse dump (early references in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16 do not identify the place with human sacrifice), but the appalling sights, sounds, and smells of the sacrificial activity that took place there made that valley, made Tophet and Gehenna, the vivid representation of ultimate perdition and damnation. V28 however does not support our usual definition of Hell. For Jesus shows us souls not living eternally in hell but being destroyed eternally and forever in hell.

After that sobering thought, we need verses 29-30—which are a promise of divine protection. Jesus does not tell the disciples that they may expect to be free from danger. God's knowledge of a sparrow's fall (v. 29) does not mean that the sparrow does not fall. What the disciples are promised is God's presence in their suffering. It is not that they will not have tribulation, for they surely will, but God will be with them in the day of tribulation.

Renounce All

Vv. 34-37 contain some disturbing statements concerning the disruptive implications of the gospel for family arrangements (cf Matthew 12:46-50; 19:29; Luke 2:48-51; 14:26). The radical nature of discipleship demands that all other interests be subordinate to the gospel--including family life. All means all. To say that Jesus is Lord means exactly that. Our Lord Jesus demands absolute supremacy in our lives. Disturbing as such a demand is today, in first century Judaism, it was far more disturbing. It was heresy; it was an abomination.

The full ramification of the renunciation of everything implied in family life is stated in the starkest terms in verses 38-39, where Jesus declares that those who do not take up the cross (as he must do) are not worthy of him, but that those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Many Jews believed that they found life through family, that they acquired a future existence through offspring. Jesus' unmarried lifestyle was a direct and unmistakable confrontation with this notion. Moreover, Jesus said that we must renounce that notion, lose that life, lose any hope that family might save us, and cast ourselves entirely upon the cross. Doing that we find a new life in Christ. This is the radical, revolutionary demand of the gospel.

Known By God

The question is: How are we known? How are we remembered? This is a basic human need. In that time as in ours, people wanted to be known, to be known even beyond their physical death. We all want to be noticed, to be remembered, to know that we are important to someone. We have this insatiable, this unquenchable, need to feel we belong.

Traditional Jewish theology had said, we belong to our family, we are remembered through family. Jesus said, Forget about that stuff. Now when Jesus speaks in anti-family terms, as he does in this passage, we are shocked by what appears to be his coldness and insensitivity. But then we realize that the truth is the opposite. Jesus is telling us that we belong to a warm, loving, eternal family. We are noticed. We are important--to God. God has this face recognition thing down cold. God will not, will never, forget us.

Christ himself promises to be involved in this process, saying, "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven" (v. 32). In other words, if we recognize Jesus in public, then Jesus will recognize us in the presence of God.

All these words are spoken in the context of trouble, a situation as familiar to 21st-century disciples as to first century disciples. They faced a hostile pagan culture, so do we. They were maligned by Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious opponents of Jesus, and we are misrepresented by so-called Christians who distort the Christian faith. I sometimes think that we do not need to worry about people outside Christianity. The most damage to Christianity is done by people who are supposedly Christians. Again, the first disciples found foes in members of their own households, while we, too, discover that strong convictions can create conflict and tension with persons closest to us (vv. 35-36). The first disciples lived in dangerous times; so do we. We live in times in which it is especially important for us to know God, and to be known by God.

Fortunately, God sees us infinitely more accurately than even the most top-of-the-line technology. The American Civil Liberties Union has urged airport security officials to consider the limitations of face recognition technology before rushing to install the systems. Says a member of the ACLU: "If Osama Bin Laden came up and looked right in the camera it's not at all clear that the alarm would go off." That is a scary thought.

When God spots us, however, bells ring. God searches us and knows us. God sees when we sit down and rise up; he discerns our thoughts from far away. The Lord searches out our paths and our places of rest and is acquainted with all our ways. God hems us in, says Psalm 139, behind and before, and lays his hand upon us (vv. 1-5).

God simply cannot keep his eyes off us--not because he is concerned about suspicious, seditious activity, but because he loves us. The constant surveillance of our Lord is based on loyal love, not on steadfast suspicion. God follows us to the ends of the earth not to prosecute us but to protect us. God sees us, knows us, and guards us--because he adores us. We are not doomed to be nameless, faceless souls, caught in the crushing grind of historical events. We are not replaceable numbers facing the anonymous oblivion of contemporary corporate culture. We are precious children of God, created, redeemed, and sustained by the lord of the universe. And so we can say with absolute confidence that in the eyes of God, we always have 100 percent face recognition.

Do We Recognize God?

But that's not all. Let us reverse the proposition. Although it is clear that we are known by God, it is not so clear that God is known by us. Would we recognize God if we saw him? In particular, our challenge is to recognize that God has taken human form in the 80 identifiable landmarks of the face of Jesus Christ. What does Jesus say in v32, Everyone who acknowledges me, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. So yes God notices us, God dotes on us, but how are we doing at noticing God?

In the church, we notice God in the faces of children who need instruction, nurturing, affirming. We notice God in the faces of married couples who need a safe place for their faith in each other and in God to grow. We notice God in the faces of single adults, the elderly, the disabled - all who bring their own gifts to the table, and who look to the church for a place where everyone knows their name, where they are noticed and valued.

In our society, we notice God in the marginalized, oppressed, misunderstood, the poor, the illiterate, the diseased, the bored, the alienated.

In nature, we notice God in the rivers, lakes and oceans; in the meadow, forest and mountains; in the air, sky, and stars above us.

And when we notice God in the church, the society, and nature, we also cannot fail to notice how much we have neglected God by neglecting our children and youth in the church, by ignoring the single person, by dismissing the elderly, by turning a deaf ear to the cries of the oppressed, by polluting our rivers and streams, not to speak of the air we breathe.

We want to be noticed, but we need to hear this: God notices us but we have miserably failed to notice God. Perhaps, as a congregation, it would be helpful for us to create an eighty-point face recognition chart for what God looks like in the church, the society, and nature. We have a people-noticing God; we should be a God-noticing people. We have a church-noticing God; we should be a God-noticing church. Amen.


John Simons, "Greed meets terror," Fortune, October 29, 2001.

McGuire, David. "ACLU warns of face recognition pitfalls."

O'Harrow, Robert Jr. "In the face of terror: Recognition technology spreads quickly." The Washington Post, November 1, 2001, E1.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

HOME About YARPC Webmaster Links Sermons What's New Prayer Center

Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Last modified, 8/13/02