One of the silliest and most pervasive mistakes Christians make is that we take good secondary things and make them our first priorities. In doing this, we take our platforms and priorities to the extreme and find ourselves opposing Jesus and his agenda. Nowhere is this more true than in the whole area of "family values" and all that has gone with it for the last generation or so. Truth is, because we have decided that family values is part and parcel of Christianity, we don't know how to read this passage and others like it where Jesus seems to say negative things about family relationships and other "good" things.
Family relationships are critically important, make no mistake. Marriage, parenting, honoring one's parents and grandparents in word and action -- all of this is tremendously important. But it is not the core of Jesus' message, nor is it the gospel. As with any secondary priority, when these things are placed in first place, they become destructive idols that actually draw us away from Jesus.
Jesus' uncompromising agenda is that through him, people should know God. In order for that to be true, we need to recognize his superiority, his sovereignty -- and that includes his sovereignty over parents, children, spouses, etc. If you find yourself starting to object and say "Jesus would never demand anything that would draw me away from family," be cautious. You are well on your way to idolatry.
I'm not saying you should leave your family. Not at all. But if you hesitate on reading Jesus' words in this section of Luke 14, take that to him and talk it out. Would your parents, spouse, children, coworkers, boss -- would they say Jesus is your first priority, over and above your dedication to them? Can you say unequivocally that he is Lord and they are not?
Jesus knows that following him is costly. He gives several disturbing examples near the end of this chapter to show that not all of us will choose the economics of his lordship. Count the cost, he says. If you can't make the commitment, recognize that. Own it. Be realistic about it.
When marriages or parenting relationships are fully in line with Jesus' lordship, they are a tremendous blessing. In God's plan, for example, marriages should be joy-filled partnerships that glorify him, build signposts of his kingdom, and model for the world what the love of God looks like in all its exuberant joy, tender forgiveness, and passionate partnership. Even our marital conflicts ought to point back to the love of God, in his plan. There's lots more we could say about this. But when we assume that a marriage is a Good Thing and therefore we should sacrifice everything for it, even our connection with God and our sense of his leading, we have created a golden calf for our own worship. We do the same thing (so much) with children and with parents. Read the gospels, and you'll see that Jesus confronted people about each of these relationships -- he demands to be Lord, in every way, over every relationship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, near the beginning of his final book Ethics, said that God's intention in the Garden of Eden was that we would know only him, and receive all other things through him. The problem of sin was that we chose to know good and evil apart from knowing God. One of the implications of this idea, that we know only God and all other things and relationships through God, is that Jesus becomes the intermediary between parents and children, between husband and wife -- that we don't have immediate relationships with anyone or anything, but we receive each relationship and each experience through Jesus.
This is what the hyperbolic language of "hating" father and mother, spouse and children, means in Luke 14. Jesus is not calling us to despise those people, but he will not be compromised in his lordship.