But wait a minute...if God grew up a plant to shelter Jonah in his shame, to provide relief from the hot sun as it beat down on the exposed prophet, then isn't it cruel to wither the plant? Isn't it mean-spirited to take away the prophet's refuge? Isn't it just...awful...for God to leave him in his shame?
That depends on how you think Jonah's story is going to turn out.
If you think that it's likely that the prophet is going to sit there for a season and stare at the redeemed people in the city that he despises and eventually work his way to a love for these people and a humility about his own calling from God, then maybe it's cruel. If you think that sitting on that hill long enough is going to change his heart, maybe it's awful. If you think that all it's going to take for Jonah to understand God's tremendous love is a little refuge from the heat and a good view of Nineveh, maybe it's mean.
On the other hand, if you think it's possible that Jonah finds the answers his heart is looking for, but that it takes an inordinately long period of time, then maybe removing his refuge from shame speeds things along. We all work a little faster when we're uncomfortable. It seems to put a burden on us to do what needs to be done in a place and move on. None of us wants to stay there any longer than we have to, even if we're committed to what we believe the place will give us. Maybe letting the sun beat down on Jonah is the kick in the pants he needs to work on his heart and not wallow in his shame.
Yet, we also have to consider the very real possibility that Jonah's heart just is not going to change. That the prophet can sit on that hill for years and look at those people and never come to love them the way that God does. That the longer he sits there, the deeper into his heart his shame will burrow and it won't be long until it completely overtakes him. There's something about us that seems prone to this, that seems to somehow want to just sit and stare at our failures. Maybe we start out wanting to figure them out or correct them or grow from them, but it doesn't take long until we just stare at them blankly. Until they mock us. Until they define us instead of shaping us into something better.
Maybe God knew that Jonah was going to sit on that hill forever and only ever see his shame. If that's the case, then withering the plant that provides refuge is just as much grace as growing it in the first place. It's God's way of saying, "I could cover your shame for you, but it won't set you free from it. So instead, I've decided to push you toward moving on."
Because it doesn't matter how captivated you are by your failure; when it becomes too uncomfortable to keep sitting there looking at it, you'll move on.
Maybe God withers the plant not to maximize Jonah's shame, but to keep him from staying in it.
The thing about Jonah's story is this: it starts somewhere in the middle. The first word in Jonah's story is a Hebrew word that means "and then..." We don't know what happened before the part that we're told. We don't know how Jonah became a prophet or how God chose him for Nineveh or what his life experiences had shaped in him to this point. We only get this one little glimpse of his life.
And we don't know what happens next. We are left with an angry, pouting prophet burdened with shame on a hillside just outside of Nineveh and a withered plant that could have been his refuge, but isn't. The only thing this tells us is that one of two things is going to happen to the prophet from here. Either he's going to dig in and stay there and contemplate his shame until he dies from the heat and the exposure...or he's going to get up, dust off, and move on to the next thing God has for him. We can't imagine that that next thing involves a ticket to Tarshish or a giant whale. Not again.
So he's going to die or he's going to move. The one thing he's not going to do is get very comfortable there. And that is by God's grace. Because God withered the plant that makes getting comfortable there an option.
Is it cruel?
Nah. It's love.