Last week, I attended Jummah prayer at a different masjid. The khatib’s sermon was based on the premise “When God tests you, it doesn’t mean that He is punishing you.” A ‘test’ is not equivalent to ‘punishment’. The iman then followed this up with examples from the lives of the Prophets, beloved by God, who were tested. I think this concept (test does not equal punishment) is fairly self-evident to the audience here, but the khatib felt it needed to be said. Today, I would like to expand on some of the examples the khatib used last week to explore the value of testing. These examples are complicated, and I can understand why he chose not to ‘get into it’ last week. However, I think that all of you can handle it and we can certainly open this up for discussion afterwards. The title of my khutbah today is “The Reward of Testing“.
In the sermon last weeks, the khatib talked about how testing is an opportunity to reveal someone’s “true character.” By this definition, when times are good, people attribute all kinds of virtues to themselves; kindness, generosity, telling the truth. But, when times are rough, people slip into their “true character” because only in bad times can these virtues truly be measured. If you say you are generous, How generous are you, really? Do you only give when you have a surplus? Do you give even when it means having to sacrifice for yourself? Do you give to everyone or only to family members or people you like? A test can provide the context and boundaries for your self-described virtue. While I agree that humans have a tendency to oversubscribe virtues in good times, I think a test can provide more than just character assessment.
Testing provides the possibility of hope for change. Perhaps we do fail a test the first time around. But sometimes, failing a test can teach us a lot more than passing it. If we are disappointed that our virtue live up to our expectations, then maybe the next time we are tested, we can resolve to do better, or resolve to do something different. We can strive to pass the test. To illustrate the resolve to do better, I’m going to use and example within story that the khatib chose, which was the story of Joseph/Yusef, may God be pleased with him.
The khatib used a number of examples in Joseph’s life to show how Joseph was tested (abandoned by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual harassment, time in prison), and in the end, he passed the tests because of the quality of his character and was successful. Joseph even forgave his brothers who betrayed him. But that was all the khatib said about Joseph’s brothers, “Joseph forgave them” and in the audience I said to myself “Wait a second! There’s a whole lot more to that story!!”-maybe because I can identify more easily with the jealous brothers and not so much with the saintly Joseph. Josephy didn’t automatically forgive his brothers, he tested them first. I know this because when my son attended his friend Reuben’s Bar Mitzvah, Reuben had to read the part of the Torah about Joseph. The rabbi gave him this passage because Reuben, in the Torah, was the oldest son of Jacob. According to the Torah, the other brothers wanted to outright kill Joseph, but Reuben convinced them to put Joseph in the well as a delay tactic. After the brothers put Joseph into the well, Reuben came back that night to rescue him. Only by that time, Joseph was gone, he’d been picked up by the slavers, and Reuben was distraught, he “rent his garments” (Genesis 37:29).
How did Joseph test his brothers? What did testing his brothers reveal ? What insights does testing give us about our character, the values of our culture, and our community? For the first part of my khutbah, I’ll use the example of Joseph and his brothers and the silver cup. In the second part, I’ll return briefly to the example of Prophet Muhammad and his appeal to the people of Ta’if.
In the Quran, the story of Joseph starts with his dream.
“Mention when Joseph said to his father: O my father! Truly I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon. I saw them as ones prostrating themselves to me. He said: O my son! Relate not your dream to your brothers so that they contrive cunning against you. Truly Satan is a clear enemy to the human being.” Quran 12:4-5
This dream is a prophesy of the future and despite being betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, raised in Egypt, spending time in jail, Joseph eventually rises to a high position the court of the Pharaoh. Many years later when a famine comes to the region, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain for their survival. In Quran it states, “And Joseph’s brothers drew near and they entered before him. He recognized them but they were ones who did not know him.” Quran 12:58
In the Old Testament (story of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50), Joseph accuses his brother of being spies. They deny this and explain “We thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land in Canaan; and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” (Genesis 42:13) In this statement, the “one is not” is Joseph. The brothers still count Joseph as being part of their family, they have not forgotten him.
Joseph agrees to give them grain but tells them that if they come again they will only get grain on the condition
“Bring me a brother of yours from your father. Do you not see that I give full measure, and that I am the best of hosts? But if you bring him not unto me, you shall nave no measure from me, nor shall you come nigh unto me.” They said, “We shall seek to lure him from his father; that we shall surely do.” (Quran 12:59-61).
Joseph is testing his brothers. He’s given them grain, and he actually unknown to the brothers, puts their money back into the saddle bags, such that when the brothers open up the grain, they see their money. The grain is free. The brothers are astounded by this, and don’t quite know how to interpret it. The famine continues, and they have to go back to Egypt again for food. They know they must bring their youngest brother, Benjamin- Joseph’s full brother, with them. And Jacob is very torn up about this, but their situation is dire.
“He said, ‘I will not send him forth with you till you give me a solemn pledge before God that you will surely bring him back to me unless you are surrounded.’ So when they gave their solemn pledge, he said, ‘God is Guardian over what we say.’” Quran 12:66
The brothers return to Joseph with Benjamin. Joseph draws Benjamin aside and tells him his identity, but continues to keep it secret from the other brothers. The saddlebags are filled with grain, again the money, and in the youngest brother’s pouch the silver drinking cup from Joseph’s table. The brothers are stopped by the chief steward who accuses them of being thieves. They deny it. The steward asks them what will be the punishment if one of them is a thief?
“They said: Its recompense will be that he in whose saddlebag it is found-he himself shall be its recompense.” Quran 12:75
The cup is found in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers are astonished and dismayed. They plead with Joseph to have mercy, “They said: O viceroy! He has a venerable, aged father; so take one of us in his place. Truly we see you as being among the virtuous.” But Joseph would not be swayed. The brothers talk amongst themselves, in their own language which they assume Joseph (they still haven’t recognized him) cannot understand.
“The eldest of them said ‘Do you not know that your father has taken a solemn pledge from you before God, and earlier you neglected Joseph? Thus I shall not depart from this land till my father grants me leave, or God renders judgment on me. And He is the best of judges!” Quran 12:
The brothers return to Jacob, minus Reuben and Benjamin, and Jacob is, according to the Quran, “choked with anguish.” (12:83). Jacob tells them they must return to Egypt and get the brothers back and also inquire about Joseph.
The brothers return, desperate, begging. The eleven stars, the sun and the moon are prostrate before Joseph- prophesy fulfilled. Joseph says to his family,
“Do you know what you have done with Joseph and his brother, when you were ignorant?” 12:89
This is the summation of the test. Can the brothers see the effect that their jealousy and envy have had on the family, on their own integrity, on the pledges they have made to their father and to God? Has time and pain given them the gift of introspection?
At this moment, the brothers recognize Joseph. Some commentators say it is because he smiled at them, other s say because he removed his crown. Joseph verifies that he is Joseph.
“By God!” they said, “God has preferred thee over us, and we were at fault.” (Quran 12:91) The brothers recognize Joseph’s character, and they take full responsibility for their actions.
Joseph’s reply is recorded in the Quran as “There is no reproach against you this day. God will forgive you. And He is the most Merciful of the merciful.” (Quran 12:92).
The surah of Joseph was revealed in mid-Mecca period. But many years later, when the man they had scorned has conquered them, the Prophet addressed the Quraysh, “Verily I say to you as Joseph said to his brothers; there is no reproach against you. Go, for you are free.” (notes to 12:91-91 in The Study Quran edited by Seyyed Hossain Nasr)
In the khutbah last week, the khatib gave the example of the Prophet being tested when he went to the city of Ta’if and appealed to them for sanctuary for him and his followers. Prophet Muhammad was in desperate straits, and the people of Ta’if not only refused to give sanctuary, but humiliated him verbally and physically. The children were told to throw stones at him.
In the hadith tradition, Aisha asked the Prophet, “Have you encountered a day harder than the battle of Uhud?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Your tribes have given me a lot of trouble, and the worst was the day of Aqaba when I presented myself to Ibn Abd Yalail ibn Abd Kulal (chiefs of Taif) and he did not respond to what I intended. I departed, overwhelmed with excessive sorrow, and I could not relax until I found myself at a tree where I lifted my head towards the sky to see a cloud shading me. I looked up and saw Gabriel in it. He called me saying: Allah has heard your people’s saying to you and how they have replied, and Allah has sent the Angel of the Mountains to you that you may order him to do whatever you wish to these people. The Angel of the Mountains greeted me and he said: O Muhammad, order what you wish, and if you like, I will let the mountains fall on them.” The Prophet said, “No, rather I hope that Allah will bring from their descendants people who will worship Allah alone without associating partners with him.” (Bukhari vol 4 book 54 #454)
The prophet is telling us, worse than the battle wounds and friends he lost at Uhud, was the humiliation he suffered at Ta’if. And when given the opportunity for revenge, total destruction of the city, the Prophet does not answer their brutality with brutality. Why not?
I found one possible answer (there could be many more) in a mystery novel I am reading. Inspector Gamache says,
“Corruption and brutality are modeled and expected and rewarded. It becomes normal. And anyone who stands up to it, who tells them it’s wrong, is beaten down. Or worse.” (How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny, p 19)
Instead of modeling corruption and brutality, the Prophet chose to model mercy and forgiveness for the people of Ta’if.
God gives all of us many tests in life, and I would argue that tests are interwoven into the fabric that is the tapestry of life in this world. We may not pass every test, and that is ok, chances are we will probably face the same challenge again and maybe we will learn to do better. Whether we pass or fail the test, how we choose to cope with these tests has far reaching effects on our own souls, as well as on those around us; our family, our community, our nation. What kind of behavior are we modeling to others as we take these tests? Do we model corruption and brutality? Or is it something else?
It is very easy, when given a particularly difficult test, to become angry and sink into bitterness. All too often in our society you hear the refrain, “I’m the victim here” and then the mantle of ‘victimhood’ is used to justify all kinds of corruption and brutality. There are times when we will find ourselves in extremely negative circumstances facing difficult challenges and the only way to navigate through these times is to be clear headed and ask God for help. Ask Allah for guidance- He’s the one who brought you this test, and He is the one who can help you through it in a manner that is pleasing to Him. And what is pleasing to Allah is good for all of us.
In closing, I would like to say a dua from 18:59: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brothers who have preceded us in belief, and do not allow any grudges to remain in our hearts towards those who have believed. Our Lord! Truly You are Kind, Compassionate.
Quran translations into English are from Layleh Bakhtiar "The Sublime Quran" 2009 (www.sublimequran.org) or "The Study Quran" edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr 2015 (HarperOne, NY)
"Holy Bible, Standard American Version" 1929, (Thomas Nelson and Sons, NY).
"How the Light Gets In" by Louise Penny, 2013 (Minotaur Press, NY).