Could you explain why Zechariah was punished for questioning the angel Gabriel’s message while Mary was not?
This is a great question about the events of the conception and birth of John the Baptist and of the Lord Jesus Christ. While there are definite parallels to the conception of both John by his mother Elizabeth and of Jesus by the Blessed Virgin Mary, there are some very plain differences that help us
understand why Zechariah was punished by being made mute (which likely included his being made deaf – as details of the story allude to them needing to make signs to communicate with him at the time of John’s birth).
What is similar about the two events begins with the role of the archangel Gabriel, who served as God’s messenger both to Zechariah and to Mary – both incidents being recorded in Luke 1. First, we hear of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah as he is serving as Temple priest who is to offer incense in worship in Luke 1:5-25). In his carrying out of his priestly work, the angel appears and speaks to him that he and Elizabeth (who are “advanced in years” and had been barren) are to conceive and a son is to be born whom they are to name John. Zechariah, for his part, simply asks (in verse 18), “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” To this the angel responds by revealing himself while saying that Zechariah, because of his unbelief, will be silent until the time of the child’s birth.”
Meanwhile, in the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the same archangel Gabriel comes to Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son, naming him Jesus. Like Zechariah, Mary asks the angel “how” will this be. Yet, rather than being told of unbelief, the angel proceeds to describe the great gift and mystery that she, a virgin, will conceive by “the Holy Spirit.”
While the similarities of the two stories are quite clear, there is a very real difference – especially when these two passages are read in the context of the whole of the Scriptures. For though it would seem that Zechariah and Mary both asked legitimate questions of the angel, it is noteworthy that Zechariah’s questioning is in doubt of God’s plan – a plan that had been fulfilled in others in the days of old. For the promise of God spoken by Gabriel was like that of Abraham and Sarah (who conceived Isaac when she was 90 years old). Accordingly, what was spoken to Zechariah was not without precedent, and therefore worthy of belief without question. As for Mary’s
question, there was no such precedent. Though the Lord had spoken to Ahaz that a virgin conceiving a son was to be a sign (Isaiah 7:14), never had a woman conceived without “knowing” a man – and thus her question of “how will this be” is not asked in doubting God, but simply a confusion over how she, a virgin, would be with child. Furthermore, what the angel describes to Mary as the way of this conception will require its own act of faith – that she would conceive not by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. In this moment, Mary expresses without hesitation her true and sincere trust in God by her response to this revelation, saying “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (verse 39).
Thus, the difference is quite simple: what was revealed to Zechariah had happened before and was therefore worthy of belief without question (especially from a Temple priest), whereas what was revealed to Mary was a new and unique act of God that was singularly given to her – and thus her question was not a doubt, but an opportunity for her (and us) to know the power of God so as to say “yes, let it be done.”