Belief and Unbelief in the Annunciation Narratives

In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the stories of Zechariah and Mary have many similarities. The angel Gabriel appears to both and tells them not to fear. The heart of Gabriel’s message to each is this: you will soon become the parent of a child whom God will use in a mighty way. Zechariah will become the father of John, a prophet like Elijah. Mary will become the mother of Jesus, who will inherit the throne of David.

Following the announcement, both Zechariah and Mary question the angel. Zechariah asks, “How will I know this (to be true)?” Mary asks, “How will this be?” The verbs – “to know” and “to be” – are grammatically similar: future, middle, indicative.

Zechariah and Mary then tell the angel that there is a problem. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are too old to have children now. Earlier in the text we learned that they’ve been infertile since they were married. Mary, on the other hand was too young. She was not yet married, and has not yet “known” a man. Mary and Zechariah, of course, are using the verb “to know” in quite different ways. Both, however, are in situations that would require a miracle for the angel’s words to come true.

The parallels between Zechariah and Mary are unmistakable. The outcomes of the angelic encounters, however, are significantly different. Zechariah is struck mute because, the angel says, he did not believe the message. Mary is declared to be blessed by Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth because she believed that the Lord would do what he said. Their observable reactions are so close. Why the different outcome?

To make sense of this, it is tempting to read too much into the words that Zechariah and Mary use to question the angel: “How will I know” instead of “How will this come to pass.” Since we know what we know, it’s possible to see more doubt in Zechariah’s words. “I’m not sure how to judge whether to trust what I’m hearing” is not quite the same as “I don’t know how you are going to make this happen.” It’s best not to push this too far. Maybe all we need to say is, “Gabriel is an angel. He knows because he knows. He knows the heart.”

So far, this looks like the story of good Mary and not-so-good Zechariah. But wait, there’s more.

The two angelic announcements are followed by two magnificent songs of praise, now in reverse order: first Mary, then Zechariah. When we use their words in worship, we call them the “Magnificat” (the first word in Latin of Mary’s song ) and the “Benedictus” (the first word in Latin of Zechariah’s song). The two songs are very similar in their content: the God of Israel is fulfilling the promises that he made to Abraham and his descendants. The story of John and Jesus will complete the story of Israel.

We understand why Mary sings. She is the model of faithfulness and the ideal believer. Of course she praises God for his mighty deeds. How can the mute Zechariah sing?

When Elizabeth gives birth to her son, she declares that his name is John. The relatives question this. No one in the family has ever been named John. Zechariah asks for something on which to write, and he writes, “His name is John.” The boy’s name had been part of Gabriel’s announcement. Zechariah has now come around and aligned himself with the angel’s message. The man who couldn’t quite believe is now fully on board. He recovers his voice, and immediately he begins to sing praise to God. More literally, he prophesies by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah and Mary had somewhat different reactions to the angel’s message. One trusted God; the other was incredulous. Despite their different beginnings, they both arrived at the same destination. That’s good news for folks who are by nature more like Zechariah than like Mary. God didn’t say, “Well you had your chance. No songs for you . . . forever!” No, God brought both the believer and the unbeliever to the point where they could open their mouths in praise. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t stop God from doing what he promised. And by his mighty power, he brought the doubter to faith. That’s grace.