As in 24:45-51, readiness for Jesus' return here demands faithfulness in doing the work he has called us to do. This warning applies to all disciples, but perhaps most seriously to church leaders: "A Christian leader who does not lead is damned" (Meier 1980:300).
We have the opportunity to multiply what Christ has entrusted to us. Matthew seems to make a special point in noting that the master gave to each according to his ability--he already knew which slaves would be most industrious, but expected all to show some industry. In the Roman Empire slaves could earn wages and bonuses and acquire property (as in Apul. Metam. 10.13; Cohen 1966:179-278), hence they would have more incentive to look out for the master's property than slaves in many cultures do. Householders going on long journeys might entrust their estate to slaves to oversee (compare 24:45-51), since household slaves often held managerial roles (for example, Treggiari 1975:49). Thus the servants understood very well what was required of them.
Most people lacked capital, but those who had it could multiply their investment fivefold or even tenfold (Lk 19:16-18); doubling one's investment (Mt 25:20, 22) might be regarded as a reasonable minimum return in the ancient economy (Derrett 1970:24). Burying money (v. 18) kept the capital safe, but the money would have been no less safe with bankers (m. Baba Mesi`a 3:11; Gundry 1982:509).
Jesus promises eternal reward for those who prove worthy of his trust. The servants' rewards were commensurate with their faithfulness in pursuing the master's interest. Elsewhere we encounter the principle that one untrustworthy in what is his own will not be trustworthy in what concerns others (Lk 16:10-12; m. Demai 2:2); here we find the principle that only those proved in small leadership positions will be prepared for bigger ones (compare, for example, Ep. Arist. 264; t. Hagiga 2:9). In the context of the preceding parable (Mt 25:10), sharing the master's happiness probably connotes banqueting with the master.
Professed disciples who insult Christ's grace by neglecting his commission in this world are damned. But as in the preceding parable (25:12), the exclusion of the unfaithful, who insult their patron's trust in them, is explicit: it involves hell's darkness (8:12; 22:13) and wailing (22:13). When the lazy servant declares, "Here is your own money back!" he refuses to acknowledge responsibility, a responsibility he could have easily enough fulfilled. Having already failed the master's trust, he now proceeds to insult the master. He offers an excuse no master would have accepted: knowing the master's reputation for sternness, he was paralyzed with fear (25:24-25). He is like too many Christians so overwhelmed by the magnitude of God's task that we put off contributing anything to it. The master rightly responds, "On the assumption that I am indeed hard and merciless, you should have been all the more diligent!" (vv. 26-27).
Whereas the other servants are rewarded by the master's benevolence, this servant, fearing the master's harshness but unaware of his benevolence (compare Patte 1987:346), experiences the very wrath he feared. This, says Jesus, is what will happen to those who claim to be his followers but do not invest their lives in the work of the kingdom.