I know that in the church we view our family relationships as practically sacred, but time and again in the Bible I don't see that. This passage is just one example.
Jesus predicts there will come a time when his followers will be so hated that their closest family members will betray them to persecuting authorities. Brother will deliver up brother, parents will deliver up their children and children their parents. He doesn't mention spouses betraying each other but it's implied. The point is that the persecution will be so great, even the most cherished family ties will not be able to withstand the pressure. And Jesus implies that this heartbreaking scenario will be a test of true discipleship. If you can still hang onto your faith through this complete disintegration of family love and loyalty, then you will be saved. Then you will know that you love Jesus first.
This warning flies in the face of our current evangelical culture for a number of reasons. We look well upon people who were raised in good Christian families. We think it's so important for us to get married so we can work on having the perfect Christian marriage. Then when parenthood comes along, we make it our whole life's purpose to raise our children to be Christian. We do all this in spite of the glaring fact that, in contrast with the focused emotional energy we put into these goals, the Bible spends very little time talking about any of these things. Yet because we've become so invested in surrounding ourselves with good Christian family to validate ourselves as good Christian people, we've gotten to a point where it's difficult to accept the warning Jesus gives us here, which is that those family relationships, however good and Christian they may seem, are only human relationships. They are fragile, as all human relationships are. They are unknown, as the human heart always is. And no matter how much your parents or spouse or children may love you, their love is still human love. It is not divine.
There is an odd passage in 1 Corinthians 7:28-29 that says, "But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life and I am trying to spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none." Most scholars believe that Paul says these things in the context of persecution, the same context that Jesus is speaking to in our passage. If you marry you have not sinned (he assures us!), but just know that you've made life more difficult for yourself by tying yourself to this worldly institution. "But the one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided" (v. 33-34a). In a time of persecution she may turn against you, and you may have to live as though you had no wife at all.
It is a sad and unpleasant thought, but it also helps to clarify your priorities. The reality of living in this world is that we really can't take anything with us. And no matter how sweet human love may be, you can't allow it to take the place of Jesus' love in your life.