The parable of the talents is a hard parable about a hard man. This is how the phrase 'a demanding person' is sometimes translated; he was 'a hard man'. He is a businessman, clever and prudent, looking for results, and ruthless in dealing with what would nowadays be called 'losers'. The poor man to whom one talent was given seems like a bit of a loser - it may explain why he was only given one talent in the first place. (At the same time this businessman still holds the quaint view that banks are safe places in which to deposit money!)
How are we to receive this parable? Hearing it in English can send us very quickly in a certain direction because the term 'talent' has come to refer to personal gifts and abilities. The obvious homily then becomes 'use your talents, use the gifts God has given you'. Or else. (Or else what?) But this is not the original meaning of the term 'talent'. Like the word 'pound', it referred originally to a weight, of silver or gold, that served as a unit of currency: money in other words.
What weighs like silver and gold for the Bible and for the Christian tradition? God's word, we are told, is like silver from the furnace, seven times refined. And love is described as a weight by both Augustine ('amor meus pondus meum') and Aquinas ('amor est pondus animae'). God's wisdom and love, given to human beings, are like weights, or inclinations. They bring with them a certain gravity or tendency. It seems we are to think firstly, then, of God's gifts, not of our own. Given to human beings, these gifts, of wisdom and love, bring with them a certain inclination or tendency. They carry a certain weight and pull us in a certain direction. The nature of these gifts is that they be handed on and shared around. They are to bear fruit and not be buried in the ground. The businessman in the parable 'entrusted' the talents to his servants and God entrusts His gifts to us.
The servant who is described as not just lazy but also wicked does not do his job which is to make money for his master. He is over-cautious and fearful, and simply returns what he has been given. There has been no development, no initiative, no fruit. In the sense in which we are receiving the parable, the wicked and lazy servant has failed to understand the nature of a gift from God. The gifts of wisdom and love are 'liquid' and flowing, they spread out and are generative. They are diffusive of themselves by nature, giving and sharing, developing and living, growing and bearing fruit. If what we have received of wisdom and love is not being shared and developed, then we have not truly received these divine gifts at all. It is not possible to be on the receiving end of these divine gifts and remain sterile. God's glory (another term that comes from 'weight') is always fertile, always creative, always radiating. The first reading uses the good housewife as an analogy for this: with what she has received she is hard working, creative, productive.
A risk-taking Master is served well only by risk-taking servants. There is truth, then, in the popular reception of this parable: use your talents to the best of your ability. But it refers not in the first place to the gift of playing the piano or of drawing pictures. (At the same time all such 'talents' can be made to serve the glory of God.) It refers firstly to gifts that are properly divine, wisdom and love, the currency in which our relationship with God is established. They incline us towards the service which pleases God. All we have to do is follow the direction in which wisdom nudges us, follow the inclination which love places in us.
To receive the gift of God is always also an onerous task. Paul reminds us of this in the second reading,: we are not in the business of hiding away but rather belong to the light. It means accepting responsibility, having a care for how things are going for people, participating in the Lord's joyful service of His people.