In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel had good news for both Zechariah and Mary. They both asked him similar questions. Zechariah’s got him reprimanded and punished, but Mary’s did not. Why? Maybe the questions aren’t as similar as they might seem at first.
Zechariah, a very minor priest, lived in the countryside most of the time. After all, there were thousands of priests and not enough holy work to keep them all busy at the temple.
So he went to Jerusalem for only one week twice a year when his division was on duty. Luke tells us that that God considered him and his wife upright and blameless, that they obeyed all of his commandments and regulations. Bible readers have always regarded them among the finest people of their time. They probably did not seem so special either to themselves or their neighbors.
Although elderly, they remained childless. Reminders of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hanna, and other barren women in Scripture probably did not comfort them. After all, most barren women never had children at all. What’s more, Zechariah had also consistently not received the once-in-a-lifetime honor of burning incense in the temple, which priests won by lot.
So Zechariah had been denied the most prized honors both personally and professionally. He must have wondered if God even loved him. His friends and colleagues must have wondered if some secret sin had forfeited God’s favor. Yet he continued to serve faithfully and observe the law with all diligence.
Zechariah and Gabriel in the temple
One day he finally drew the lot he had hoped for all his life. Three priests entered the holy place. Two of them prepared the fire and sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animal as prescribed by the Law. Zechariah remained behind to burn the incense and offer a prayer.
Most priests probably performed the task with a mixture of joy and fear. They completed their duties quickly and went back out to bless the crowd of worshipers. But Gabriel interrupted Zechariah and told him his prayer had been answered.
What prayer? The verb tense Luke used implies the answer to a specific prayer, not habitual prayer. It seems unlikely that any priest would offer a personal prayer on such a solemn occasion. Zechariah had probably long stopped praying for a son, anyway. So his prayer probably included such national concerns as the coming of the Messiah and freedom from Rome.
In any case, Gabriel promised a son who would fulfill whatever Zechariah had prayed, either for his own needs, for his nation, or the world beyond Israel.
Unfortunately, Zechariah failed to respond as a faithful, conscientious priest. Instead, he answered as a cynical and crotchety old man. He reminded Gabriel how old he and his wife were. He demanded to know he could be be sure Gabriel was telling him the truth.
Surely he knew that anything ever spoken by an angel always came true. He could have recalled the stories of all of those barren women and how great their sons became. He could have responded in faith and gratitude. Instead, he responded with unbelief, a direct insult to Gabriel and to God who had sent him. The angel told him to shut up. He would not speak until his son was born. Then he prayed an awesome and prophetic prayer.
Mary and Gabriel in Nazareth
Six months later, Gabriel appeared to Mary. She was a virgin, betrothed to be married, who lived in the obscure village of Nazareth. She was probably a teenager and probably from an undistinguished family.
Gabriel’s message to her was even more preposterous and incredible than what he had told Zechariah. As a sign of God’s favor, Mary would become pregnant, and her child would be known as the Son of the Most High. He would receive the throne of the ancient King David and rule over Israel forever. The very familiarity of this passage in generations of Christmas pageants has obscured much of its strangeness.
We can assume she was the child of devout parents and had heard a lot of Scripture. It’s less certain that she had been taught to read.
However well or poorly she may have understood Scripture, it contained plenty of promises of a Messiah sent from God. One verse familiar to us says a virgin shall conceive. We have no idea whether that verse was known well in Nazareth and whether anyone of the time considered it a prophecy about the Messiah.
“You will be with child.” Nothing in Luke’s text indicates anything other than an ordinary conception and birth, but we need to realize that all dialog in Scripture summarizes longer conversations. Something Gabriel said must have at given Mary the notion that fulfillment of the promise would not wait for consummation of her marriage to Joseph.
So Mary asked a question. Gabriel answered it with no hint of rebuke.
Did Mary respond as Zechariah did? After all, she asked how it could happen. But the difference between Mary’s question and Zechariah’s is profound. She asked how the angel’s words would come to pass. He asked how he could know that they would. She asked for clarification out of curiosity, and then explicitly gave permission to God to make her pregnant without a husband.
In a way, Zechariah is an excellent role model for people who have long awaited the answers to their prayers. After all, he remained devout and faithful in his disappointment. But at a crucial moment, he failed. He showed unbelief when he should have shown faith.
Mary, a much better role model, displayed perfect humility, obedience, and faith.