If you think sheep are cute, white, fluffy, cuddly, Little Bo Peep type creatures, you’ve missed the meaning of Pope Francis’ admonition to clergy to “know the smell” of their sheep. In short, sheep stink! Cows, pigs, and chickens are downright “aromatic" compared to the smell of sheep. And for a shepherd, the smell of the sheep becomes a part of him.
And this is just the point of the Holy Father’s comment. In essence, he is calling his brother priests to live close to the lives of those they serve. He is calling his priests to live in an intimacy with their people, to know them, their hurt, their pain, their brokenness.
The New Testament tells us, definitively, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and that we are His sheep. And, this is true so far beyond the caricatured imagery we often see in church. Jesus did more than live among His sheep, He experienced His sheep. He lived in intimacy with “the smell” of our sin, brokenness and woundedness. More than that, He took the smell of sin onto Himself. His humanity suffered the full weight of our broken world: doubt, pain, hunger, fatigue, despair. He even bore our sin, the full weight of our “smell”. Jesus lived in the smell of His sheep, never turning up His nose or running from the ugliness. Instead, He pressed in, drew closer, loved more deeply.
As men, we are called to be Jesus: to our wives, to our children, to our friends, to those we serve in ministry. That means, knowing the smell of our sheep. The truth is, most of us don’t particularly care for the smell of our own sheep. We’d rather keep our distance from the messiness of others’ lives, and we’d rather keep others out of the messiness of our own lives.
Smelling our sheep means stepping outside ourselves. It requires getting close the brokenness in others, and a willingness to let others to “smell” you. I’ve seen men in accountability groups who don’t smell each other. Sure, they “check in” and hold each other accountable, but they don’t truly live in the messiness of their brothers lives. I know men who don’t know the smell of their wife, fearful of deep intimacy, afraid they won’t understand her heart and know how to love her. I routinely see men who don’t know the smell of their children, held back by their own inadequacy as men.
To smell your sheep takes courage. It takes strength. You have to be willing go out and kill the lion, as David did. You have to be willing to fight off bandits. If you want to know the smell of your sheep, you'll experience pain, despair, fatigue and doubt. But, it will never be empty. When you smell your sheep, Jesus happens! Healing happens! Encouragement happens! Freedom happens! Love happens. It’s the only life that is truly worth living. It is, indeed, a sweet, sweet smell.