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Zechariah and Mary: a Christmas study in contrasts
In reading Luke's account of the angel's conversations with Zechariah and Mary, I often noticed that both asked him questions. Zechariah's got him reprimanded and punished, but Mary's did not. Why? As with all questions about Scripture, closer reading and prayer revealed the answer.
Zechariah, a very minor priest, lived in the countryside most of the time. He went to Jerusalem only when his team was on duty at the temple, one week, twice a year. 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 their contemporaries or to themselves.
Although well on in years, they had no children. Reminders of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hanna, and other barren women in Scripture probably did not comfort them. Most barren women never had children at all. Zechariah had also consistently not received the once-in-a-lifetime honor of burning incense in the temple, which priests won by lot.
Denied the most prized honors both personally and professionally, Zechariah must have wondered if God even loved him. His friends must have wondered if he had some secret sin and forfeited God's favor. Yet he continued to serve faithfully and observe the law with all diligence.
One night he drew the lot he had hoped for all his life. Five priests entered the temple, but only Zechariah entered the holy place. Most priests, with a mixture of joy and fear, completed their duties quickly and went back out to bless the crowd of worshipers. Zechariah was interrupted by the angel, who told him his prayers had been answered.
What prayers? The verb tense Luke used implies the answer to a specific prayer, not habitual prayer. What it his constant prayer for a son? Or whatever he had just prayed for the entire nation? In any case, the angel promised a son who would fulfill whatever Zechariah had ever prayed, either for his own needs, for his nation, or the world beyond Israel.
Unfortunately, Zechariah chose to respond not as the faithful, conscientious priest, but as a crotchety, cynical old man. He reminded the angel how old he and his wife were and demanded to know how to be sure the angel was telling him the truth. 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 the angel and to God who had sent him. The angel told him to shut up. He would not speak until his son was born (Luke 1:18-20).
Six months later, an angel appeared to Mary. His message was even more preposterous and incredible than what Zechariah had received. 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. However well or poorly she may have understood Scripture, it contained plenty of promises of a Messiah sent from God, but no precedent for anything the angel said.
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.
Zechariah is an excellent role model for people who have long awaited the answers to their prayers, but at a crucial moment, he failed. Mary, a much better role model, displayed perfect humility, obedience, and faith.