Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus teaches through parables. While Jesus taught this way to obscure the meanings of his stories from those who weren't among his followers, they can be equally hard to decipher for those who strive to follow him today, as evidenced by the numerous debates one can find over the interpretation of nearly every one of his parables.
The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) is no exception; many different ideas exist as to what Jesus' point really was. And it is a curious tale; a master entrusts a portion of his wealth to three servants (five talents to one, two to another and one to a third - a "talent" being a measure of weight that would have represented a significant amount of money no matter what the actual commodity was) and then leaves on a long trip. The first two servants put his assets to work and double what was given to them, while the third buries it in the ground and is harshly punished for not investing it.
In many churches, the "talents" are seen as an allegory for a believer's spiritual gifts, which are to be used for the advancement of the church. Too often, however, what constitutes an acceptable use of one's gifts ends up reflecting the agenda of whoever happens to be doing the teaching, and the Parable of the Talents becomes a guilt trip to club over the heads of members who fail to properly conform. Even when personal agendas are not present, insufficiently active churchgoers may be threatened with the fires of hell if they don't do enough to exercise their gifts in certain preapproved ways.
But is that necessarily what this parable was meant to convey? Jesus wasn't in the habit of motivating his disciples through threats and guilt trips. Indeed, he always saved his harshest words for those religious leaders who burdened their followers with legalistic regulations and who valued outward conformity more than mercy and compassion.
And a closer look at the parable reveals that the third servant was driven by a specific emotion: fear. He was afraid of his master, whom he described as "harsh" and implied was somewhat unscrupulous as well. He buried the talent entrusted to him because he was afraid of what the master would do to him if he lost it. And investment entails risk; the third servant's reaction confirms that the other two servants could have ended up losing their master's money had their business ventures not gone well.
The third servant's fearful attitude is reminiscent of the legalist who lives in constant fear of eternal damnation. God has given each of us the gift of life and the opportunity to make an impact in the world, but in legalistic theology the cost of failure (or of being wrong) outweighs any possibility of success; it's far better to live life as restrictively as possible, for the sake of sin avoidance. Bury that gift of life in the ground, where it can be safely preserved and returned unused when the Master comes back for it.
While no devout Christian would ever describe God as unscrupulous, the fear that dominates the lives of legalistic believers belies the fact that they see God as a harsh and easily offended taskmaster who must be properly revered OR ELSE. Like the third servant, they understand that God will have his way anyway, so they conclude that it's better to lay low and stay far away from anything that might potentially get them into trouble.
Yet it's the first two servants who took risks who are rewarded by their master. What would have happened if they had lost their talents? It seems noteworthy that Jesus never addresses the possibility. Perhaps, in God's accounting, the greatest failure lies in doing nothing at all. That doesn't mean that all risks are equally worthwhile or that we can validate anything we do by attaching God's name to it, but it does suggest that this lifetime wasn't meant to be spent avoiding as many things as possible while we count the days until we can escape to the next life.
As for the punishment the third servant received, there's a tragic irony in an individual earning the very punishment he feared as a result of his efforts to avoid punishment. Whether or not the parable is meant to be taken literally, it's worth noting again that most of Jesus' pronunciations of judgment were aimed at those members of the religious establishment who valued the letter of the law above all else. And legalism becomes its own punishment as it slowly sucks the life out of its adherents, confining them to a fear-ridden prison of their own making.
One of the most frequent commands in the Bible is Do Not Fear. While the freedom of unconditional love is never a license to pursue one's own pleasure to the detriment of others, it is a liberation from the legalistic chains that would hold us to the ground that was meant to be our launching pad. It's an invitation to discover the wonders of God's creation and to play an active role in shaping what happens next.
So dare to live. Explore. Innovate. Befriend a Samaritan woman. Reach out to a leper. Heal the sick on the Sabbath. Color outside the lines if it improves the picture. Make the world a better place even if the religious right condemns you for it.
I don't presume to present this as the interpretation of Jesus' parable (if finding a single definitive interpretation is in fact possible or even desirable). Rather, I would hope to demonstrate how the Bible can speak to us and breathe its life into us when we stop treating it like an encyclopedia and give up our demands for a life that can be spelled out in simple black-and-white terms. Such an approach requires more from us than a life of fear and hiding, but the rewards are far greater as well.