We’re going through the life of Christ on Sunday evenings, and we just finished talking about the angelic announcement to Zechariah about the birth of John the Baptist. When Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, he is incredulous (we’re told in the passage that she is barren and advanced in age). As a result, he is punished because of his unbelief, and can’t speak until the baby is born.
That evening someone asked an insightful question, that neither I nor the rest of the class did a very good job of answering. I think that we got part of it right, but missed an important element. The question was this: why was God so merciful to Mary in her disbelief, and so harsh to Zechariah?
Part of the issue is certainly that Zechariah should have known better. He was a priest, performing the most holy duty of his life. He was getting to burn incense in the temple, presumably a once in a lifetime event. Sure, an angelic announcement wasn’t a common everyday occurrence, but if it was going to happen, you’d think it would happen then! Mary, on the other hand, was just a young lady, and not a priest. How would you expect her to react!
But, upon reflection, I think that there is even more to the story. Zechariah and Elizabeth were finally going to experience the joy of having a child. The disgrace that they experienced as a result of Elizabeth’s barrenness was finally going to be removed (Luke 1:25). Zechariah should be overjoyed! The angel found his response less than overwhelming.
Mary, on the other hand, was a young lady. She was unmarried, but betrothed. Something in the angels announcement gives her pause. She basically says, “I haven’t had sex! How can I have a child?” The angel very graciously explains it to her. Why is he so gentle? Well, besides being stunned, Mary is dealing with a virtual impossibility in her mind. She can’t be pregnant! And if she is, how could any of this be explained to her family, friends, and neighbors? Can you blame her for being fearful? The angelic announcement to Zechariah would remove disgrace, but the announcement to Mary could bring considerable disgrace! And that, I think, is why you find Gabriel dealing much more gently with Mary than with Zechariah.