A couple of weeks ago we had this parable in the Matthew version for Sunday, and in the Luke version for the following Wednesday. Doing a bit of background reading made me wonder about the right way to interpret it.
My favourite lectionary site had a link to a remarkable paper that persuaded me that the references to a 'king' in Matthew's parables were not necessarily - or even usually - references to Jesus or God, but in fact had specific political and contemporary resonances for those listening to Jesus teach. And I recall - though I cannot track down quite where - a reference to (I think) one of the Herods going to Rome to receive approval to become King ruling over the land of Israel. So I think there is this contemporary resonance to the parable of the talents - and that it isn't, in the first place, a question of encouraging Calvinistic prudence.
So what is it about? Well, let's run with the idea that Jesus is referring to a specific king (first) and that he is criticising a particular attitude, probably of the Pharisees (second) - given that this is where the parable fits in Matthew, in the context of the woes etc. Clearly the Pharisees, and even the general population, would have identified with the third servant, who didn't provide the wicked king with a return on the investment made. And it is this attitude that Jesus is criticising.
Might it be that in fact Jesus is criticising the attitude of militant resistance? In other words, that where there is a usurper on the throne, the point need not be to overthrow or resist such a king - that reaps where they do not sow - but to get on with the business of life, thereby possibly achieving authority locally (over the 'ten cities' - presumably the area of the Decapolis?) leading to greater wealth for all? So an emphasis on prudence - not because the king is God, but because the king is wicked and exploitative, and that it doesn't matter about whether the king gets more from you if you do more, what matters is ensuring that there is sufficient wealth to go round. The militant resistance of the third servant is held up as destructive; the cooperation is held up as fruitful.
This seems to chime with the idea that God rains upon the just and the unjust etc. We shouldn't get caught up with, if you like, resisting capitalist exploitation. We should concern ourselves with God prospering the work of our hands.
I'm not entirely happy with this reading, but I prefer it to seeing the king as God, ready to damn us for being afraid.