by Dorothy Littell Greco
When Zechariah and Mary had their personal encounters with the angel Gabriel, they both ask How. How exactly is my wife going to conceive when she is past her child bearing years? And how can this be when I am a virgin?
That same question receives two very different responses.
Zechariah gets a fiery rebuke from Gabriel, who is not only God’s special envoy but apparently has the capacity to discern the thoughts of humans:
I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. (Luke 1:19-20)
In other words, How dare you not believe me! And then zap! The old priest is rendered speechless until his son John is born.
Mary, on the other hand, receives a thorough answer to her How? question.
We typically make sense of this disparity by concluding Zechariah had a bad attitude. The Message interprets the priest’s response as, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.” I’m not a Greek scholar so perhaps the late Eugene Petersen got it right when he pushes Zechariah’s reply toward cynicism and disrespect.
But what if there’s something more going on here? What if God is rebuking Zechariah in part because he should know better? After all, he is toward the end of his life and we can assume he and God have had quite a history together. What if we read Gabriel’s rebuke as, “How could you not believe God’s promise after all you’ve been through together? After all these years of serving Him and serving his people?”
In contrast, Mary is at the beginning of her faith journey. She is a teenager. She’s young and innocent. She has not experienced decades of God’s faithfulness, nor has she wrestled with nagging doubt or the profound disappointment that comes when you’ve waited for decades for God to fulfill what you believe He had promised.
I get Zechariah’s retort. After all, he had been faithfully and blamelessly serving God for his entire life. The Luke account reads:
[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. (Luke 1: 6-7)
Gabriel’s initial words to the priest when they met int the temple acknowledges that he (and assumedly his wife) had been praying for a child. Surely, they felt deep sadness in not being able to conceive. Then there’s the reality that barrenness had an ever greater stigma in ancient times than it does today. Meaning, the two of them probably experienced shame. In the natural realm, the window of opportunity was closed. Elizabeth has gone through menopause and their hope of having a child must have died.
Zechariah’s response to Gabriel belies his grief and yes—a touch of cynicism. Can we fault him? Don’t we all struggle to silence the inner cynic who seems to revel in pointing out when the worst case scenario happens? Furthermore, Zechariah had most likely never witnessed a woman getting pregnant post menopause. Why should he believe Gabriel? How are any of us supposed to maintain Mary’s innocent faith after a life-time of disappointment and unanswered prayer?
Though God indeed seemed to expect more of Zechariah than he did of Mary and though Gabriel’s rebuke was not incidental, I think we can be encouraged by the way things played out. Some tiny ember of faith must have been burning in Zechariah because he went home and made love with Elizabeth. And she conceived. Their long-held dreams are finally realized. Their prayers are answered and after John is born—and named—Zechariah’s speech is restored.
The first thing Zechariah did when he was able to talk again was to praise God for his faithfulness speak prophetically over his newborn son.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David…And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)
Zechariah’s journey is worth paying attention to. It shows us that doubt and lack of faith don’t disqualify us from miracles. Perhaps his journey is the antidote for those of us who are still waiting for God to show up, who are still battling doubt, and who are still fighting to silence cynicism. Maybe Zechariah should have known better than to doubt God, but even in his doubt, he responded in faith to God’s directive. God, in turn, helped Zechariah’s unbelief and proved himself faithful. He will do the same for every one of us provided that we wait with enough openness of heart to let God in.
(I am indebted to Ashely Hales and Jen Pollock Michel’s conversation in this podcast for the idea that inspired this post.)