This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently November 2014.
Alas, another Matthew Parable that seems to preach the Law and not the Gospel. As a person and as a congregational leader, this passage troubles me. Yet there is a bit of Gospel is we pay close attention here. The master gives talents to his slaves. Talents are huge sums of money. What kind of person gives someone 1 or even 2 or even 5 to 10 million dollars?? What kind of person gives slaves this kind of money? Sure, this parable may serve as warning not to hide our gifts. Law, law and more law. But the Gospel news is this: God gives us his assets in a way that in unimaginable in the real world of money. (you might also say that God blesses his slaves investments in a way unimaginable in this real world of money...)
Lastly, I wonder if the real question is: What do we view as our talents? Our gifts and skills? More and more I am coming to the conclusion that the people in our lives are the talents we have been given and how we treated them will be our judgement.
ταλαντον ("talent", a measure of gold weight worth roughly a million dollars or 20 years worth of a standard persons wages, 25:15). While this parable may produce guilt and anxiety in us that we don't do enough, it is worth remembering that anyone who gives away 5 talents to his slaves (not friends, slaves) doesn't value money they way the rest of us do. 5 talents would be 5-10 million dollars; 100 years worth of human labor entrusted!
τα υπαρχοντα ("possessions", 25:16) see below for a grammatical explanation of this word. This word does mean possessions, but it comes from the verb for "to be" an does not simply mean goods, but really the entirety of one's resources and means. For instance, in Genesis 12:5, Abraham and his family take τα υπαρχοντα of theirs when they are moving countries. Second Peter 1:8 actually describes personality traits as υπαρχοντα. This word is probably better translated as "assets"
εκερδησεν ("gain" from κερδαινω, 25:16) Worth remembering that Paul said that all of his achievements were "dung" in order that he might gain Christ. Also worth noting is that Jesus, in all three synoptics, warns of "gaining" the world (same word) but losing the soul. Jesus is not simply teaching financial advice, but spiritual.
εκρυψεν ("hide", κρυπτω, 25:18) The word here literally means "encrypt." The sin here is not having enough gifts, but hiding that which we have. I wonder too if it is worth playing with this word "hide" and how people hide their gifts.
Grammar Review: I thought substantive participles were easy!
Generally, one of the easiest participles to translate are a group called "substantive." Basically, the form is 'the word the'+'participle' and it is translated the 'one(s)/thing(s) that do this verb'. So in verse 14, you have τα υπαρχοντα. The second word is a verb meaning "to be" so this substantive participle is translated, "the things that are." In this case, this is an idiom which means something akin to "possessions" or "assets" but at its core, it is a participle made into a 'substance' by the word 'the'.
However, Greek can get pretty fancy with the substantive participle. They can stick words in between the 'the' and the partciple. For example, in 25:18
ο δε το εν λαβων means "But the one having one (talent)." First, it is tricky because you have to figure out that the words το εν refer to "the one talent" but it is especially tricky because you have to realize that ο goes with λαβων and becomes "the one who has." Lastly, you have to unpack the middle and put it on the end to translate it because in English you cannot have, outside of poetry, "the one one talent having."
The nice thing about such participles is that they allow Greek to build some monster phrases, which ultimately are not that hard to translate. You just have to identify the participle pieces (in this case the 'the' and the participle), translate them and then go after the middle.