“You must choose wisely...”-Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Some people are good at winning arguments. Some people argue so much that you let them win because you tire of hearing them go on and on.
But arguing with angels is different. We have a passage here with 2 people. One old priest and one young girl.
The old priest is mentioned first and he is married, his name is Zechariah and his wife is Elizabeth. The text tells us that he is well past the age of having children and so is his wife. It does not give us their specific ages. But with his reaction to the angel we can safely assume he is advanced in age to the degree that it would be a ridiculous notion to father a child and a silly announcement to declare his wife a new mother.
It tells us that this couple was a good couple, they weren't corrupting the priesthood, they had a solid bloodline, good relatives. They simply had no children, which was not a small thing in those times, it was viewed as a sign that God was displeased with you, this is especially troubling for a priest. But Zechariah had apparently not ceased to pray for a child, regardless of their age, we see that in the passage, because vs. 13 tells us, “your prayer has been heard”.
Zechariah is at work, offering prayers to God on behalf of the people, maybe making some more prayers of his own and he is interrupted with an answer, via messenger. The angel Gabriel. Zechariah asks what appears to be a legitimate question, “How can I be sure?”. He isn't discounting the idea entirely but he would like a sign of some sort. Sure an angel just appeared to give him a direct message from God but Zechariah wants some other surety to be convinced. This is not the first time people have argued with God in some form or fashion. Gideon, Moses, Peter, the list is long but those 3 are good examples. Some wanted some proof, some wanted some extra help, others wanted a different plan because the current plan didn't seem very good.
So poor Zechariah is struck mute. That's the punishment. His punishment, we are told, is because, “you did not believe my words”, meaning the words of God sent to him, via angelic messenger. But I am unsure that Zechariah had zero faith in this matter as we already stated he had been praying for a child, that's why the angel came. But when he asked for more confirmation, more assurance, more clarity, since this was an odd time for them to have children, he is punished.
Mary has a similar encounter in this same chapter. She is “troubled by the angelic visitor” and when she is given this news that she will have a child, is equally perplexed as to how this could happen. Just as Elizabeth and Zechariah were shocked because of their age Mary is shocked because she is a virgin. There are a few things it takes to make a baby and Mary knows what they are so she is confused as to what this means. She even asks the question after the angel has told her God will give her a baby! So let's not pretend that Mary isn't asking the exact same question as Zechariah because she is, look at vs. 34, “How will this be?” This seems to be the same sort of thing Zechariah says when he asks, “How can I be sure?”
Before you jump off and say that Mary's heart was more believing than Zechariah's let's not forget that the beginning of the passage has already established that Zechariah is a priest and a good one at that, it explicitly let's us know that this man is a godly man. This has nothing to do with his heart.
Both of these characters ask how they will have children when they should not be having children. Mary knows and worships God and so she should know that all things are possible with God. Zechariah knows the same thing.
The answer to the question, why was Zechariah punished and Mary not is not answered by the passage.
The only hint we are given is perhaps in vs. 62 when he writes the child's name on a tablet, and in obedience he names the boy John. It seems his obedience to the commands given in his angelic visitation confirmed his faith.
Perhaps Mary's response in vs. 38 is her obedience confirming her faith in the God who can do all things.
What is clear from this passage is that arguing with angels can lead to more information, as in Mary's case, or with an irritated angel, as in Zechariah's case.
Perhaps we can take away from this encounter the prayer of the man who brought his sick son to Jesus and his response to Jesus' question of belief is found in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!”