In the late eighteenth century, William Carey preached what would ultimately be an incredibly influential sermon in which he challenged his hearers to “expect great things from God [and to] attempt great things for God.” Carey’s challenge was aimed at rousing the church of his day from its complacency, at least in regard to foreign missions. As he saw it, the fact that Christians were not attempting great things for God indicated that they were not expecting Him to do great things in and through them. They may well have known that God was “able to do far more abundantly than all” they asked or even thought (Eph. 3:20), but they were obviously not expecting that He would actually do so in point of fact. Their actions, or, more accurately, their lack of actions, showed that they believed they were living in a day of small things. And that is why Carey’s sermon challenged them to think bigger and to expect more from God. He knew that if and when they did, they would begin to step out in faith and take risks for the cause of Christ.
This same relationship between expectation and action can be found the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30. After having been given a share of their master’s property, each according to his ability, the three servants in this parable take vastly different approaches to managing that property. The first and second servants, we are told, took their master’s money and put it to work. They took risks with that money, which is clearly implied from the fact that the master tells the third servant—the one who buried his talent in the ground—that he should at least have invested that talent with the bankers in order to receive interest. The point the master is making here is that if this servant wasn’t willing to take risks with the money as the other two did, he should at least have played it safe by giving it to the bankers.
The reason for the third servant’s aversion to risk-taking is immediately apparent in his confession to the master: he had an expectation problem. He wasn’t expecting great things from his master; he was expecting only harshness. That is why he says, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed” (Matt. 25:24). His expectation problem led him to do nothing with the master’s money. He buried the talent in the ground so that he could give it all back to the master when he returned.
But the first two servants obviously expected something quite different from the master. Rather than playing it safe with the money they had been given, they went and put that money to work. They clearly expected a master who would be merciful and slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness—the very opposite of the harsh taskmaster whom the third servant expected. Otherwise, they would never have taken the master’s money and risked losing it all. This is especially noteworthy when we remember that one talent was equivalent to twenty years’ wages for a common day laborer at the time. If we assume this day-laborer would earn approximately $20,000 a year today, that means that one talent at that time would be equal to $280,000 today; two talents would be $560,000; and five talents would be $1.4 million—all of which are significant sums of money. The fact that the first two servants put almost $2 million of the master’s money at risk, seemingly without hesitation, tells us that their expectations of the master were far different from servant number 3.