And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. — Luke 1:18-20
I was walking this afternoon with my wife Rose on our usual three-mile loop and we were talking about why I had suffered such a serious writer’s block and I half-jokingly suggested it was to keep me from writing things I might later regret (because of my great frustration with the godless behaviour of some professing “Christians” on internet forums). It then occurred to me that this may be why Gabriel struck Zacharias dumb. Years ago I read something by a Jew who rejected Luke’s account because “an angel would not punish someone for asking a question.” He thought it was entirely out of keeping with the general tone of Scripture. His argument bothered me because I agreed very much that it is a good thing to ask questions. So for years I’ve had this little tickle of discomfort around this event. The problem is that I did not realize his hidden assumption that Zacharias was struck dumb as punishment. Does the text say anything about punishment? What if it wasn’t punishment? What if it was a gift to both Zacharias and his community that saved him from uttering, and them from hearing, months of faithless blather about an unbelieved divine promise of the coming forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ? Now this is something to which the text actually does speak! Indeed, it states explicitly that Gabriel struck Zacharias dumb “because thou believest not my words.” This is to be contrasted with Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. She too asked a question, but her heart was filled with faith, a fact acknowledge explicitly by Elizabeth when she said “blessed is she that believed” (Luke 1:45). So it was not the act of questioning, but the lack of faith that caused Gabriel’s seemingly “negative” response. This is a satisfying solution too because it is based on faith.
As I wrote this, another view came to mind. Even if one agrees that Zacharias was struck dumb as punishment, the question remains “punished for what?” The skeptic asserted he was struck dumb for “asking a question” when in fact the text says that he was struck dumb for unbelief – an event perfectly consistent with every page of the Holy Scripture. It is grace alone that saves us from such a fate! So we have a wonderful wrap-up: Gabriel’s action may not have been punishment at all, and if it was punishment, it was punishment for the sin of unbelief. Zacharias was not punished for “asking a question.” I don’t recall where I first encounted this argument against Luke’s Gospel. I took a quick spin through cyberspace to see if I could find anyone presenting it, but found nothing. If you know of a page presenting it, please send me the link.