John Humphreys is to retire from Radio Four’s Today programme. Let off the lead by spin doctors, politicians are fair game. Innocent-sounding questions are used to flush out privately held and well-disguised opinions. Are they racist or sexist? Do they want to abolish the NHS or the nuclear deterrent? One slip of the tongue or hesitation by a politician on Today provides headlines for the rest of the day.
To go on record with inappropriate views is the death knell for anyone with aspirations to high office. A politician with a ‘safe pair of hands’ is one who is sure-footed under pressure. Having earned their stripes, they are wheeled out in times of crisis to clean up the mess left by hapless colleagues who have let their guard down: ‘What the Northern Ireland Secretary really meant to say was…..’
Jesus would have been a natural on the Today programme. ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘Why do your disciples pick corn on the Sabbath?’ ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?’ ‘Moses has ordered us to condemn women like this to stoning. What have you to say?’ These are questions asked by Pharisees. None of them are inspired by concern for the hungry or by compassion for those betrayed by the infidelity of their partner. Jesus adroitly deflects them all.
Nor are such questions intended to provide definitive guidance to those of us hearing them 2,000 years later. Yet these very same questions appeal to modern-day Pharisees equally motivated by the desire to score points. Their purpose is to discredit and to incriminate.